Disney Princesses Illustrate The Powerful Archetypes Within Femininity And The Forces That Try To Destroy It

Snow White. Cinderella. Rapunzel. Are they the product of generations of stereotypes, or is there more to them than meets the eye?

By Jillian Schroeder3 min read
snow white 1937 disney
Walt Disney Studios/Snow White/1937

Despite her popularity since Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was released in 1937, the Disney princess has recently come under a lot of fire. Called an “anti-feminist” for her positive portrayal of traditional feminine values, the Disney princess has been criticized as outdated and falsely identified as a passive object who waits to be rescued.

But that’s not what everybody thinks. CatGirlKulak, an X (formerly Twitter) user, thinks Disney princesses embody some of the deepest archetypes of the human experience. The Disney princess isn’t just a positive influence on little girls. Her story expresses powerful truths about femininity – and those who would attack it.

I don’t think the Disney princess has been given the credit she’s due. Let’s take another look at the deeper meaning behind these controversial characters.

The Disney Princess Is Noble – Whether She’s Royal or Not

Disney princesses embody so many of the virtues we wish to have ourselves, and they do so effortlessly. They’re beautiful and graceful. They show mercy and wisdom and patience. Whether or not these traits are valued by their community (and often, they aren’t), the Disney princess lives according to her innate moral code, choosing to do good not because it will benefit her, but simply because it’s right.

CatGirlKulak ties this innate virtue to Nietzche’s theory of “master morality.” It’s a complex philosophical idea, but when you boil it down, “master morality” is Nietzche’s attempt to explain why some people hold values that lead to goodness and beauty, despite all odds. These people are often free from petty jealousies and negativity, and have real nobility in the truest sense. It’s not a coincidence that the Disney princess is often literally a member of royalty – a symbol of her ties to all that is noble and good.

The Disney princess is often the master of her own domain. Pocahontas can dance with all the colors of the wind, Snow White becomes the mistress of the dwarves’ home, and Rapunzel has mastered every aspect of life inside her tower. Belle takes care of her preoccupied father, as does Jasmine. They live by their convictions, bringing order and beauty to their homes. 

The Disney princess’s true nobility is often tested by a journey, where she must endure humiliation, loneliness, and many trials. It’s her version of a quest – only the treasure she seeks to protect lies within her heart. Cinderella, the girl who serves her wicked stepmother, becomes more lovely as she is mocked and reviled. Ariel must go without her mermaid song and journey to the land. Elsa, the queen with magic power and mixed-up emotions, must go off and suffer loneliness to reunite with her sister and unlock the deeper magic within. 

The Disney princess’s lesson for women, then, speaks to something placed deep in her nature. As the Disney princess must live with nobility, treasuring her natural grace and curiosity and nurturing spirit, little girls (and big ones too) need to remember that femininity is innate, valuable, and must be treasured.

But the Disney princess has one dangerous trait: her naivete. The Disney princess is often young, an indication of innocence and unspoiled vivacity. She lives with such a pure heart that she does not yet know to question the motives or values of others. This purity, one of her very gifts, is the thing that her enemy will attempt to use against her.

The Disney Princess Isn’t Attacked in Battle, but with Poison

It’s not just the Disney princess whose meaning calls back to some of the deepest human experiences. In many Disney films, the princess is under attack by an ugly, wicked stepmother or usurper to her throne. 

The ugly stepmother is more than just an embittered old woman. She represents the other kind of morality about which Nietzche writes – the “slave morality,” which is driven by jealousy. The envious ugly stepmother develops a sense of values that degrades everything the noble person loves and upholds what the noble person abhors. She wants to destroy what is noble because she lacks what the princess has innately.

But the ugly stepmother figure doesn’t directly attack the princess. In Snow White, she hires the woodsman to do the killing, and later poisons an apple which she will manipulate the princess into trying. She lies about taking Cinderella to the ball and then destroys her dress. The ugly stepmother attacks the princess through subterfuge and deception, through poison, not open battle.

This poison isn’t always physical either. Sometimes it takes the form of Mother Gothel’s poisonous advice to Rapunzel, or Ursula’s false sympathy for Ariel. The ugly stepmother misleads the princess, and gives her advice which will lead to the princess’s undoing. 

There’s a primal fear here, going back to humanity’s most tribal times. The fear of another woman, often older, poisoning your reputation with gossip and lies is embedded deep in the hearts of women. From Pride and Prejudice to The Crucible, Fleetwood Mac to Taylor Swift, artists for centuries have reminded us what is at stake when tongues start wagging and rumors get spread. The ugly stepmother is an echo of this, the manipulative tongue that lays the princess low with poisoned words.

And CatGirlKulak notes, the truth about the ugly stepmother is more important now than ever. Girls have always struggled with cattiness that can poison our relationships with one another, but modern technology has made it easier than ever to share nasty words on Instagram or X – poisoned words that never go away. Men masquerading as women poison the minds of young people, and woke voices poison the definition of femininity itself.

Closing Thoughts

It’s more important than ever to remember the primal truths the Disney princess has to teach us. Disney princesses give us healthy archetypes of femininity and inspire us to be our best, feminine selves – and to be careful of those who would poison our femininity. The Disney princess reminds us both of the true nobility that lies within our femininity and of the forces that will try to bring a noble woman down.

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