You can’t move for Disney Princesses at the moment. There they are: animated icons every one, a cinematic brand that spans over 80 years. There they are again: re-imagined by glamorous actresses like Emma Watson and Lily James and Liu Yifei. Again with the Princesses: remodelled in CG for a cameo in Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph sequel.
They are ambitious women, with hopes and dreams and amazing hair. They have their own motto (‘Dream Big, Princess’), their own logo and, most importantly, strength in numbers. If you’re a young girl looking to movies for your role model, you could do worse than look up to one of the Disney Princesses.
So what of the Disney Princes? Well, maybe it’s best we don’t talk about them. A ragtag bunch of no-hopers, wet blankets and humourless ciphers, the unofficial Disney Princes lack the identity, the popularity and the brand recognition of their female counterparts. Wouldn’t it be nice if, in an age where boys have real-life princes like William and Harry to look up to, Disney recognised that their animated Princes could have a role to play too?
The Disney Princes — if they can even be capitalised like that, because no official classification exists — are difficult characters to get the measure of. Some of them don’t even have proper names; Snow White’s suitor, for example, is named ‘Prince,’ and I have a hard time believing that Cinderella’s beau was really called ‘Prince Charming.’ Plus, of course, not all of them are officially royalty. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll classify every male lead opposite a Princess as a Prince. It might sound like cheating, but trust me: they need all the help they can get.
Disney Princes fall into the following buckets: White Knights, Wet Blankets, and Bad Boys.
The early era of Disney animation wasn’t exactly progressive when it came to gender stereotypes. Snow White, bless her, was content to live life as a lowly scullery maid, because she dreamed that a big strong man would come along to save her. Enter The Prince, later retconned by various Disney ventures as ‘Prince Florian’ in an attempt to give him a slight semblance of personality, who falls in love with Snow White within seconds of hearing her singing voice.
Here’s what we know about the Prince. 1. He has a horse. 2. He has a great jawline. 3. That’s it.
The Prince is barely a character at all, but he’s emblematic of the issues with the early Disney Princes, who sweep in, swing a sword around a bit, maybe stab a dragon or slay a queen and then whisk the Princess back to their tower where she can presumably put a bit of dinner on. They don’t know much about the women they profess to love, but they sure-as-heck know they are HEROES with a capital HE.
Cinderella’s Prince Charming is a slight improvement, but he’s still a male saviour who only exists to rescue the Princess from a life of servitude, and if it wasn’t for him finding love via Cinderella’s oddly specific-sized feet, old Charmo would presumably have gone back to living his lavish, royal lifestyle, having learned zero lessons in the process.
The other notable White Knight is Sleeping Beauty’s paramour Prince Phillip, who, to be fair, did kill a bloody great dragon. However, Phil shares the movie’s iffy understanding of ‘true love’: again, all it takes is the entirety of one song for the grown-up couple to fall for one another. The Princess siren song strikes again.
The White Knights make for terrible role models for young boys because they’re based on outdated ideals of masculinity. In fact, the White Knights are now mocked by Disney themselves for their old-fashioned ways: James Marsden’s Enchanted hero Prince Edward was ridiculed for being a knucklehead, while Chris Pine and Billy Magnusson play duelling idiots in Into The Woods, tearing their clothes off on a raging waterfall as they sing ‘Agony,’ a song about the perils of being handsome. Pack it in Granddad, everyone under 60 just thinks you’re weird.
Even as we move into the Disney Renaissance of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Disney Princes of the era still left a lot to be desired. For want of a better word, these guys were fops.
Let’s look at Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid as an example. Before we criticise Eric, we must first recognise that the gender politics of this 1989 classic are unbelievably wack: Ariel, a 16-year-old mermaid, betrays her father’s trust — not to mention her entire SPECIES — to devote her life to the first man she meets. Note to any young women reading: do not do this. If you knew Ariel in real life, you and your friends would definitely have a WhatsApp group about her.
But Eric is no better. Yes, he’s an accomplished mariner, and yes, he shows some selflessness in rescuing his dog from a burning boat, but he almost drowns in the process and it’s only the intervention of Ariel that stops him from becoming a handsome yet bloated sea corpse. The rest of the movie has to wait for Eric, the infernal dolt, to catch up with the obvious realisation that Ariel is the girl who rescued him. If you need a reggae-loving crab to assist your romantic efforts, you’re doing true love all wrong. Prince Naveen from The Princess and the Frog had more of a backbone when he was an amphibian.
Let’s not overlook the Prince from Beauty and the Beast, another no-namer who had to be unofficially dubbed ‘Prince Adam’ by fans. We see very little of ‘Adam’ in Prince form, before he goes into Beast Mode we are introduced to his former douche self via stained glass window exposition, where we learn he was literally the worst person alive. As the Beast, yes, he learns humility and the power of love, but we really shouldn’t be congratulating men for releasing hostage victims they themselves kidnapped. Belle and her father are driven to the brink of insanity by singing cutlery, all so the liddle Prince can learn his lesson. Are you taking notes, son? One day, you too could use Stockholm Syndrome to make women fall in love with you!
Finally, moving into the modern world (of, er, 1992), Disney Princes finally start to make a good showing for themselves. The Bad Boy — who may not actually be bad, he just likes the lifestyle — is the polar opposite of the White Knight. They have no interest in saving the woman or defeating the dragon; they’re just in it for themselves, man. And hey, if it just so happens that a crazy hot chick comes along for the ride, that’s just totally bodacious. (Reminder: it is 1992).
Aladdin, for example, is the only man to claim ownership of the title of a Disney Princess movie (in your FACE, Jasmine!). He’s riff-raff. A street rat. A scoundrel. He’s also modelled on Tom Cruise, so, you know, he’s doing okay. He may be a common thief, swiping bread from the markets to get by (won’t somebody please think of the bakers?), but he loves his mum, cares for his monkey and through the power of Alan Menken music alone, saves the day. He’s definitely an improvement on the fusty Prince Charmings of old, but still: would you want Aladdin dating your daughter? For ‘dangerous motorcycle bad boy,’ substitute ‘reckless carpet flyer pickpocket’ and then tell me if you think he’s a good role model for kids.
Other Bad Boys come in varying shades of grey. Flynn Rider of Tangled learns a valuable lesson about being true to himself, if you’re willing to overlook the thieving and general gadabouting. Captain John Smith of Pocahontas and Captain Li Shang of Mulan are brave, strong and industrious military men, if you’re willing to overlook the dubiously young age of their girlfriends. Of the recent Disney Princess movies, only Frozen’s Kristoff seems unbothered by the Bad Boy lifestyle, and he’s the most boring one of all. At least with Prince Hans you get some drama.
PRINCES AMONG MEN
So: are Disney Princes good role models for boys? Not particularly, no. But then, young boys aren’t really left wanting for positive male role models in movies these days, are they?
Disney’s own Marvel and Star Wars universes are packed with heroic male leads with square jaws and brooding righteousness on their side. Honestly, every blockbuster movie that doesn’t feature that all-too-rare ‘strong female role model’ contains a male character that’s likely positioned to be an aspirational figure for young men (that doesn’t stop the Men’s Rights idiots from harping on about it, mind).
Perhaps there’s no better role model for young boys than the Disney Princessess themselves, because while the Disney Princes shuffle their frilly shoes and look faintly embarrassed, the kick-ass crew of Disney Princesses are still showing everyone, boys included, how it’s done.