Apparently, people do this thing where they like to refer to Belle (from Beauty and the Beast) as Disney's feminist princess. I guess I can see that, I thought to myself; I only watched the film once when it was current (despite becoming a voracious Disney consumer in my teens), and all I really remember of Belle is that they made her a bookworm (and her role in her own Sega game sucked). In the interest of solidifying my own opinions, I picked up the film again and gave it a watch, eager to see why we still think of it so fondly.
What We Misremember
Let's try an experiment. We all recall that Belle was in possession of a quality that makes surrounding characters view her as odd and undesirable, but let's think about what that quality actually was. Do you recall it being intelligence, because mostly you remember that she likes books and her father is an eccentric genius? That's certainly what I thought. But in truth, it ain't so; she's never portrayed as being particularly smart, and what she mentions loving about her books is charming fantasy worlds and exotic romances. I think Disney pulled a fairly masterful bait-and-switch here, all the worse because I expect it was entirely unintentional: if you actually examine it, Belle's "unfeminine" quality turns out to be that she is a romantic dreamer.
That's hardly a bad trait! The essence of feminism is accepting that any woman has a right to be however she wants to be - regardless of, not because of, whether it follows or confronts traditional gender values. But fantasizing about a grander life inspired by fairytales is not exactly a traditionally unfeminine trait. It's fair to observe that in a period-accurate setting, her curiosity might have been considered inappropriate in a woman - but hardly to a first-world audience in 1995.
Now, don't mistake my meaning - a film doesn't have to be about feminist values to be any good (I shouldn't even have to say that, but as long as this world contains Men's Rights Activists, I despair of any point ever being made about feminism that isn't immediately misrepresented with deliberate malice). And the movie does deserve credit on some points; firstly for developing anything out of a public domain character whose only trait was attractiveness, and secondly for presenting us with a rare hypermasculine villain - contrast villains like Jafar, Scar and Frollo, who seem to endorse the tired tradition that while heroes are masculine and strong, villains are smart but unmanly. But overall, the qualities that make Belle successful in her own story are kindness, patience, and the ability to love - admirable, but hardly revolutionary values in a female lead.
So who is the feminist Disney princess? For my money, Pocahontas.
I can't really continue without giving an honourable mention to Merida of Brave, who will no doubt be the favourite of commentors. That's fine; her story has a refreshing lack of romance, and the extreme rarity of a film primarily about a mother/daughter relationship is enough to make it an excellent standard-bearer. However, Pocahontas came well before Merida, and the very fact that her story contains such an unconventional romance is what makes it interesting to me.
So, Merida, you're great - just not my first choice. Honourable mention also for Tiana, who is rather better than her story's slightly broken Aesop tries to make her. For Mulan, not so much; I can see what her story was trying to do, but it hit way too many wrong notes for me, and I am perpetually pissed off that all her development still led to a finale where she mostly runs away from a guy.
Despite being a decade and change ahead of Merida, Pocahontas' character is essentially of the same themes. Both characters are a celebration of independence and self-determination, but also a reminder of the importance of responsibility and familial ties. Crucially, in the case of both characters, they are defined by a story where they have to make real choices.
Like many other latter-day "Princesses", Pocahontas comes with a good dose of rebelliousness. Unlike them, her choices have real consequences. Not blameless action-movie consequences, like Gaston's threats against Belle's father, but more subtle outcomes of both choices for which she is actually going to have to take responsibility.
See, writing a character who refuses to be forced into a loveless marriage is easy mode, especially when when the marriage is to an obvious villain. Who wouldn't cheer for Jasmine, rejecting her ridiculous suitors in hopes of finding true love? Who couldn't get behind Belle, when she refuses to give in to Gaston's blackmail? There's no real choice to be made by other of these ladies. What if Jasmine's decision to defy the marriage law might cause a war with neighbouring kingdoms? What if Gaston was instead a willing and likeable suitor - just not Belle's type - who offered to save her father in good faith? Then the choice might actually carry some weight.
Meanwhile, Pocahontas isn't ordered to marry a loathsome villain; she is asked to marry a respected hero, by a father who truly expects it will make her happy. In other words, she has a real choice to make, and must take responsibility for the consequences. Belle's basic independence is essentially "my first feminism" when compared to the far more nuanced setup faced by Pocahontas.
The Romance Problem
Of course, there's no denying that Pocahontas' story is fundamentally a romance, which is enough to turn off a lot of feminists (and, alas, most of the young male audience at the time). However, even her love story is remarkable; she is placed in a position of moral and even physical superiority over John Smith almost immediately, and remains there for almost her entire arc. Instead of a stirring love duet (this was produced, but cut before release), her biggest number is an "I Am" Song about showing her love interest how ignorant he is. Think about that for a moment; instead of singing about how much she loves the guy, she essentially sings "You know nothing, John Smith!" and makes clear that he has no business with her if he can only see her as an unfortunate fixer-upper. Hells yes!
Then, of course, there's conclusion of it all. What could be better, as a feminist moral, than the truth that it is both okay for a strong woman to desire romance, and possible for her to be complete without it? The ending of Pocahontas' romance was - and still is - a remarkably mature decision in the Disney canon. Like Merida, Pocahontas' character arc comes to a close not when she attains a man, but when she realises that getting to choose your own path means that you have to choose your own path. And, just like the beginning of her arc, her choice is a real choice, not just a delay before the audience can cheer for the obvious conclusion.
The dynamic between Pocahontas and Smith is constantly being reinforced visually. If you're paying attention, you'll see that she is constantly above or in front of him, leading him either directly or by example; especially during Colours of the Wind, she's leading the way in every shot, while Smith flails along behind with trepidation or (before too long) a positively childlike abandon. And let's remember, Smith is no shrinking violet - the story wastes no time establishing him as a dashingly heroic Man's Man. Nonetheless, that doesn't keep our girl from taking the initiative in almost every scene.
It's not until Pocahontas' darkest hour that she and her love interest appear in a traditional strong male/emotional female moment, and it's precisely that - a moment. It's the scene where the audience understands things are wrong, the moment where our heroine is most unlike herself, before she regroups and returns for her crowning victory.
The entire film of Pocahontas is visually spectacular, one of the most beautiful animations of all time in my opinion. More importantly, though, the visuals are tuned to convey a great sense of character. All Disney Princesses are gorgeous (except Merida, I suppose in the name of YMMV), but Pocahontas isn't just a statuesque stunner; her body language makes her seem like a powerful contrast to her princessly peers. While her build is graceful, her designers also gave her more height, a firmer stance and stronger shoulders than other Princesses; throughout the film, her poses make her look noble and proud even in her worst moments.
Pocahontas' animation is masterful. You can admire her for being pretty, but more than that, the film calls upon you to respect her. In a time when the entire Princess crew seem to suffer regular facelifts, makeovers and glitterbombs, it's comforting to imagine that at least in her original element, that's exactly what you were supposed to do.