A short note of clarification: "Disney Princess" here refers to the brand, not the characters specifically. Although most of them are in some way related to or are a member of royalty, the "Princess" brand encompasses most of Disney's female heroines, excluding mainly anthropomorphic females like Maid Marian from Robin Hood and Nala from The Lion King, and characters from low-grossing films, such as Princess Eilonwy from The Black Cauldron.
With that in mind, when I mention the words "Disney princess" and "complex motivation", I suppose most of you expect me to expose my fangs and fly for the jugular with a bloodcurdling screech fit to shatter all porcelain teacups, glittery tiaras and sing-songs concerning belief in dreams. As one for whom the nostalgia goggles do not heavily distort my view of the Disney franchise - especially the early films, many of which I never saw until I was much older than the target demographic - the "Disney Princess" brand is one of my least favourite childhood entities.
In light of this, you might be somewhat surprised to learn that one of my all-time favourite Disney films is one of the classic "Princess" films.
However hardened and bitter I may appear, I actually love many Disney films, old and new. The stories are classic, the animation is timelessly gorgeous, and heck, I'll admit to loving many of the characters as well today as I do then. However, especially with the older films, I do have a major bone to pick with the "Princess" films in particular.
Motivation. Or, rather, lack thereof.
The female characters who were presented as leads to Disney films were utterly uninteresting. Everything about them is summed up in their opening musical number - they were young and beautiful, often orphans, and they wanted nothing more than to escape their boring mundane existence by finding true love, marrying a handsome prince, and riding off into the sunset. And what happened to them? They did just that.
You can see where the flaw is instantly: these women are solely motivated by a personal desire for "true love".
To be fair, love is a powerful and valid motive - it's a huge part of human life and existence, and its power is undeniable, as well as realistic and compelling when handled correctly. But love works best as a motive when it has something tangible to connect to it, or at least other motivating factors working alongside it.
The problem with most of the Disney princesses is that this is not the case - they have no other defining features other than their desire for love, and they have no other short-term goals or interests to flesh them out in order to compensate for the somewhat wishy-washy motivation. Thus, you have the much-maligned archetype as we know today, bleeding into subculture as the mother of unimportant love interests, token females, sexist portrayals of women and Mary Sues the world over.
So how could I, ostensibly the bipedal ball of wrath that would seek the annihilation of all films containing so much of a whiff of the Disney Princess formula, hold one of them so dear to me?
Because this film is different. Its name is Mulan. And I think it's easily the best of the classic Disney films.
We all know what Mulan is famous for in the Disney world; its heroine, who ran away and joined the army and kicked butt and was, generally, the best thing to happen to Disney females ever. Rather than her story being controlled by a propecy or curse, or even other characters, the eponymous Mulan was very much the driving force for her story - she shaped events, or influenced the way they were shaped around her, and although her opening song was concerned with dissatisfaction with her lot in life, it was much more to do with confronting her own identity and internal conflict than it was to do with any vague long-term goals she harboured as a result.
And it is in this musically-expressed existential crisis that we find Mulan's motivation - and the reason she stands out, to me, as the strongest of the Disney Princess brand.
At the opening of the film, Mulan's motivation and actions are conflicted: she wants to bring honour to her family, yet finds herself struggling to properly fulfil the neccessary actions and criteriam to do so. Out of this arises a struggle with what she really is as opposed to what she feels she needs to be for her family's sake.
This is a pretty powerful and evocative motivation for any character, so seeing it in a Disney Princess is stunning, to my mind. Furthermore, Mulan's approach to going off on her adventure builds on this: rather than acting on personal impulse to see the world and get what she wants, a la Ariel of The Little Mermaid or Belle from Beauty and The Beast, Mulan's motivation is much less self-centred. The only reason she goes to fight in the army, and thus begins her adventure, is for the sake of her father, whose age and old wounds would imperil him hugely if he were to go to war himself.
Admittedly, having the spur-to-action of her character be centred around a male figure could be seen as the male-dependent Princess archetype coming through, but by having this situational motive working in conjunction with Mulan's unresolved personal conflict, the story and Mulan herself are much more compelling, as her narrative deals not only with her having to blend into the army as a man, but also with her journey self-realisation.
Mulan's motivation was gifted with maturity: her priorities do not lie solely in a self-centred desire, but rather the selfish element of her need for self-discovery is tied in with more immediate goals of protecting and honouring her family, saving her country, and bonding with and fighting beside the new friends she makes in her adventures.
Of course, much has changed since the classic Disney Princess films came out, and both the company and the brand have seen some major changes. So what do you think? What are your views on the "Disney Princess", old and new? Leave me a comment, and let me know!
~ Charley R