Over the years, Disney princess relationships to men have frequently been depicted to us and our children. While some of these can be healthy, many a Disney princess has found herself in a toxic, abusive relationship. Here, we will explore the 7 worst relationships Disney princesses have found themselves in.
The 7 Worst Disney Princess Relationships
- Jasmine and Aladdin, Aladdin 1992
- Aladdin is keeping a friend imprisoned.
- The friend doesn’t want to enable Aladdin to lie to Jasmine, but Aladdin is forcing him to do it anyway.
- Aladdin is basically catfishing Jasmine.
- Cinderella and the Prince, Cinderella 1950
- Snow White and Merlin, Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs 2019
- Snow White and the Prince, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 1937
- Mulan and Li Shang, Mulan 1998
- Ariel and Prince Eric, The Little Mermaid 1989
- Belle and the Beast, Beauty and the Beast 1991
- Tension phase: ‘Worrying or in fear of what if’ – When Belle won’t have dinner with him he responds: ‘…then go ahead and STARVE!!!! (to Lumiere and Cogsworth) If she doesn’t eat with me, then she doesn’t eat at all!’.
- Crisis phase: ‘The blow up / worse than before / fear for your safety’ – When the beast comes across Belle in the forbidden west wing, he shouts at her and smashes furniture to the point that Belle fearfully begs him to stop before attempting to run away.
- Calm phase: ‘I love you’ – After the Beast rescues Belle from wolves, they return to the castle, the Beast blames the situation on Belle (classic perpetrator behaviour: ‘…if you hadn’t run away, this wouldn’t have happened!… you shouldn’t have been in the West Wing!’) But then treats Belle with love by gifting her his library.
Jasmine begins the story dreaming of no longer being a princess, escaping both the palace and her obligation to marry. Aladdin begins the story dreaming of living in the palace with the wealth and status of being Sultan. The story ends with Jasmine, in the palace, choosing to marry Aladdin, who consequently will be elevated to the heir of the Sultanate. Who wins?
Aladdin is a Disney cartoon filled with problematic men. The Sultan wants to marry off Jasmine to appease the law (which he later points out is actually dictated by him) and Jafar wants to marry Jasmine for the status it would give him. Aladdin is quite happy to weigh in on this by masquerading as a prince in order to win her hand. Jasmine best summarises the relationship between her and the men of the movie when she says:
‘All of you, standing around deciding my future? I am not a prize to be won!’
Not enough attention is paid to the fact that Aladdin stalks Jasmine. He lets himself into her bedroom at night because he has decided he wants to see her. Although Jasmine tells him to go away, this behaviour is not seen as a red flag. Furthermore, Aladdin decides to break the promise he made to free a friend (the Genie) who is enslaved, he does this in order to maintain a lie about his identity. Let me just repeat that so it can sink in:
Disney princess relationship message: Stalking is romantic and you shouldn’t worry too much if your partner has lied about his identity throughout the early stages of your relationship.
Unlike other relationships on this list, there is no serious issue between Cinderella and the prince, beside the Disney trope that having set eyes on each other just once they are ready to make an informed decision about a commitment to marriage, wait, maybe that is problematic.
The biggest fault with Disney’s Cinderella seems to be that the story teaches young children, especially girls, that ‘if you tolerate an abusive home environment with an air of selflessness, then the world will reward you.’ Cinderella does not take action to improve her situation, even though she is clearly unhappy living with her abusive stepmother and sisters.
As a result? Her fairy godmother appears and saves her. Later she is locked away by her step family, as a result? The prince appears to save her.
Disney princess relationship message: Do nothing and you will receive everything. Not only does this message discourage independence and self-autonomy, but also encourages tolerance of abuse.
Where to begin with Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs (A parody remake of Snow White)? The film is aimed at children and seems to want to teach them that you can be beautiful without conforming to social norms of beauty. Honourable concept. The problem is that it is not until 80 minutes in, about 5 minutes before the movie’s end that this is expressed.
The central male protagonist, Merlin, is entirely selfish only interested in using Snow White because she is beautiful (by socially conforming standards) and he wants her to kiss him to break a curse:
‘You’re a gift, a gift that will transform me into someone amazing’.
You see its all about him, she is there to serve his agenda… until the last 5 minutes of the movie.
Merlin’s friends fight over her for the same reason, competing to see who can get a kiss from her first. Merlin constantly points out body form, labelling people ‘short and chubby’, ‘on the big side’ etc. Merlin’s companion says, ‘Of course, she’s a princess, how could she be so beautiful if she weren’t?’ / ‘I knew a girl this pretty couldn’t possibly be a criminal!’ You see, only beautiful girls can be princesses and they couldn’t be criminals. I roll my eyes and facepalm in exasperation.
I imagine that one should argue that the humour in ‘Red shoes and the seven dwarfs’ is satirical. But how many children are going to recognise this? My 6-year-old barely understands the jokes from penguin bars. She’s basically going to be exposed to 80 minutes of protagonists ridiculing anyone whoever is not standardly beautiful and praising all those who are.
Disney princess relationship message: Beauty is to be valued above all (Except in the last 5 minutes of the movie).
So little do we know about the prince that he actually has no name beyond ‘the prince’, probably because he appears very briefly at the start to serenade Snow White and at the end to non-consensually kiss her while she sleeps. Speaking of kissing, the narrator explicitly states that:
‘The prince, who had searched far and wide, heard of the maiden who slept in the glass coffin.’
That’s it? There is never any suggestion that he believes it will ‘break the magic spell and resurrect her’ if he does it. The prince heard of a sleeping maiden in a glass coffin and decided to go find her and kiss her? That is definition sexual predator behaviour; targeting a victim who appears vulnerable .
Remember how I mentioned earlier that the prince serenaded Snow White and then later, while she slept, he sought her out to sexually assault her  and then take her away to marry him? Well, this behaviour could classify the prince as a power-reassurance rapist; a rapist who believes the victim has a sexual interest in him and that through the use of force the victim will grow to like him (Craissati, 2005) .
Disney princess relationship message: You are lucky to be married by a stranger who sexually assaults you while you sleep.
There’s a lot to love about the character Mulan in the original Disney 1998 cartoon. She riles against the sex based oppression of the time. When tested, she rises to the occasion earning the respect of most of her male companions… and this is the problem with Li Shang, her love interest.
When the men discover Mulan is a woman, they all react differently. The ‘gang of three’ (Yao, Ling, and Chien Po) have come to respect Mulan and recognise her as an equal, they try to protect her when Li Shang threatens her and later pay tribute to her by masquerading as women in the story climax. Li Shang on the other hand, draws a sword, threatening to kill her. He makes it clear that the only reason he won’t kill her is because she saved his life:
‘A life for a life. My debt is repaid.’
Wow, how magnanimous of Li Shang… equating Mulan saving his life to him not killing her for being a woman.
When Mulan later tries to warn Li Shang that the Huns will attack, Li Shang tells her to go away and says he won’t trust her. The implication is he does not trust her because she is a woman. It is only after Mulan’s actions have been sanctioned by the Emperor, the custodian of the sex oppressive institution, that Li Shang changes his tune.
Disney princess relationship message: Forgive men who are a product of the institution and seriously consider murdering you for being a female!
At the age of 16, mermaid Ariel changes the way she looks and literally gives up her voice to marry prince Eric 3 days after meeting him without ever had a meaningful dialogue with him. Ariel and Eric are drawn to each other by pure physical attraction, (even though Eric doesn’t recognise Ariel the second time he sees her) and Ariel wants to be with him on the land.
Ariel strikes a deal with Ursula; Ursula will give her the ability to go on land in exchange for her voice. Ursula tells her:
‘You’ll have your looks! Your pretty face! And don’t underestimate the importance of body language! Ha! …It’s she who holds her tongue who gets her man’
Sadly, Eric confirms Ursula’s perception. When he comes across Ariel, naked but for a torn sail, washed up on the beach, his interest in her being the girl of his dreams outweighs his concern for her predicament and he takes her home with him. Eventually Ariel regains her voice, they kiss and marry. As audience members, we see them marry without ever having a meaningful communication to each other and without learning who each other is (Eric didn’t even know she was a mermaid until just before we see them marry).
Disney princess relationship message: Dramatically change your physical appearance and remain silent to be with a man.
Really nothing can top the awfulness of Belle’s relationship with the beast. The beast is verbally abusive, physically intimidating, voyeuristic, and literally keeps her locked up. The Beast’s behaviour mirrors a classic domestic abuse cycle:
The above cycle of violence is a model developed to help understand the co-existence of loving with abusive behaviours. You can learn more about this cycle here or from the book ‘The Battered Woman’ by Lenore Walker.
Professor Liz Kelly has done a great deal of research into coercive control, her work on the 6 cycles of coercive control is used by Aurora New Dawn in their training*. What is frightening about Beauty and the Beast is that when you consider the Beast and then look at the Power and Control wheel, it is like a checklist of the Beast’s behaviour!
It only makes matters worse that when Belle is alone in her bedroom, the Beast uses a magic mirror to watch her.
Disney princess relationship message: You’re lucky to be entrapped in a domestic abuse relationship with a violent controlling voyeur.
Not the worst Disney Princess relationship
Aurora and Prince Philip, Sleeping Beauty 1959: Sleeping Beauty does get a lot of flak. However, when prince Philip first met Aurora in the woods, he didn’t pull anything creepy on her and seemed to genuinely want to get to know her. Later, Maleficent captures him and whilst taunting him she explains that only ‘true love’s kiss’ can wake Aurora. So, I’m willing to cut his non-consensual kiss of sleeping beauty some slack as he did kill a dragon to get to Aurora and believed kissing her would save her… unlike the creepy sex pest in Snow White.
Why do these Disney Princess relationships matter?
These Disney princess relationships matter more than we may think. The relationships act as an example to young children throughout the world and have the power to affect their behaviour and shape their vision of the world. Especially, if it is us the adults who are endorsing them.
Disney’s target market
While Disney brands itself as family oriented, it is no Disney primarily focuses it’s marketing on boys and girls aged 4 to 12 .
|Movie||Recommended age |
|Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs||7+|
|Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs||5+|
|Beauty and the Beast||6+|
Without getting too dramatic about all of this, a child’s formative years are from age 0 to 8.  Which means that we can see an overlap between the most crucial and vulnerable age for child development and Disney marketing.
Child viewing habit facts
Here are a few light facts on the amount of time children can spend exposed to cartoons and messages from them.
- Children between the age of 2 and 5 watch cartoons for up to 32 hours per week. While those aged between 6 and 11 will watch around 28 hours a week. 
- 53% of those children aged between 7 and 12 watch TV without parental supervision. 
Of course, we all are different and allow our children access to TV and film for different amounts of time and at different ages. However, there is no denying that ‘the screen’ takes a certain place in our children’s lives.
The effect of cartoons on children
As mentioned earlier, there is an overlap between Disney’s target market and a child’s formative years. Furthermore, Disney is specifically targeting the youngest in our society as they go through ‘primary socialisation’.
Primary socialisation occurs between birth and puberty and is the period of time when a human first begins to learn social rules and conventions. It is the most influential development period as it is when a child will learn the values, attitudes, taboos, and behaviours of social culture .
Social psychology also states that during primary socialisation children shape their behaviour as their ideas of the roles of women and men being received .
Children imitate what they see on screen, the content affects their moral and social values, and gender differentiation (Ghilzai, Shazia & Alam, Rabia & Ahmad, Zubair & Shaukat, Amina & Shahum, Syeda & Noor, 2017) .
The worst messages Disney Princesses send our children
Given that the research above demonstrates that:
- Children spend a considerable amount of time watching cartoons.
- Children are vulnerable to messaging about social values.
Should we not worry about the messages which Disney princess relationships offer? Especially considering that we live with a culture of male violence against women:
- 137 women are killed by a family member each day .
- It is estimated that less than 40% of women who experience violence seek help .
- Globally, 1 in 3 women will be the victim of domestic abuse .
- In 2018, 3.1% of women (510,000) and 0.8% of men (138,000) aged 16-59 were the victims of sexual assault .
- 5 in 6 victims (83%) of sexual assault not reporting their experiences to the police .
It only takes one look at the Femicide census to see the terrifying toll male violence has been taking on women and therefore why we need to be very conscious of what we teach our children, both boys and girls.
Speaking for myself, my daughter struggles to understand complex forms of humour such as parody or satire. She tends to take a lot of messages at face value. So, whether it be Ursula telling Ariel that she doesn’t need a voice to communicate as long as she has a pretty face or Merlin endlessly expressing beauty as the most important value… my daughter is simply going to take at face value any messages which she doesn’t recognise due to their nuance.
More importantly, I do not want to be sitting alongside my daughter telling her:
‘The Beast is not so bad… he’s just a bit sad… Belle should stick with him!’
‘You’ve got to understand, Li Shang is just doing his job, the rules are the rules, Mulan knew that when she signed up.’
I would rather avoid these movies, but if that isn’t possible, I’d challenge her:
‘Do you think its OK for Aladdin to walk into Jasmine’s bedroom (late in the evening/night) without asking?’
‘Why is Ariel giving up her voice and changing the way she looks…? Why doesn’t Eric make some changes too? Why doesn’t he become a merman?’
‘Do you think its OK for the prince to kiss Snow White? He doesn’t even know her and she’s asleep.’
‘Do you think its OK for the Beast to shout at her? Scare her? Watch her in her bedroom through a magic mirror without her knowing?’
Overall, this is about more than just some outdated Disney cartoons, there are plenty of cartoons, films, TV shows which send inappropriate messages to children. There is also a deeper issue that reaches into two core behaviours of parents.
Firstly, we have to be vigilant to messaging. If a cartoon is signalling that even though you are unhappy to be abused by your step family, you should sit at home and wait for something magical to happen, isn’t it our responsibility as parents to challenge that and suggest an alternative to our children?
Secondly, we have to be careful what messages we are sending our kids. If I tell my daughter, ‘The Beast is just misunderstood’, then she will interpret that as me promoting tolerance in the face of abuse.
If not Disney Princesses then what?
So, now that I have ruined 7 beloved children’s movies, I have 7 recommendations of replacements that show positive (or at worst neutral) representations of both men and women.
- Carmen Sandiego 2019 to 2021
- Dora and the Lost City of Gold 2019
- Matilda 1996
- Home 2015
- Abominable 2019
- Jurassic World Camp Cretaceous 2020
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse 2018
Hard to summarise in a few words: An animated TV show about Carmen, an orphan girl who is found, raised, and trained by an institute of villains to be a master thief. Upon realising the true nature of the institute, she goes rogue and seeks to right their wrongs. Foiling their plans, stealing back what has been stolen in order to return them. The show is funny, exciting, and educational. Furthermore, it has introduced to my daughter a heroine who falters and faces adversity, but doesn’t give up.
A live action Dora the explorer. This movie introduces us to a young girl, different to others, who refuses to compromise on who she is. Dora and the Lost City of Gold is an action comedy that sweeps up a group of school kids and takes them on a jungle adventure.
Based on the classic Roald Dahl novel. Matilda refuses to accept her place in the world; living with a neglectful family and bullied by a school teacher. She uses her intelligence and a little magic to get even and help a kind-hearted teacher.
A family, comedy, buddy movie about an alien who becomes friends with a little girl. The girl has lost her mum and goes on a quest across the globe to reunite with her. This movie promotes family values and determination… and has a great soundtrack which my daughter made me buy her.
A young girl befriends a lost Yeti and embarks on a journey to reunite it with its family. Along the way she learns to make peace with her past. Abominable is beautiful to watch and filled with good natured messages, humour, and adventure.
A TV series about a group of kids who visit the Jurassic World island only for the dinosaurs to escape and cause mayhem on the island. The group of kids is made up of nuanced characters, each with their own personal flaws and strengths, who need to learn to work together to overcome adversity.
How could animated Spider-Man not be popular among children? There are scenes of action and peril, so keep that in mind when putting it on for younger kids. What makes this movie stand out is not just that the cartoon is well crafted and enjoyable, but that it introduces the first female Spider-Man… Spider-Woman. Gwen is a strong, capable woman for girls to look up to and roleplay as in the playground when the kids want to play superhero games.
If you would like to know a little more about me, you can read my article on the Bubble of Male Privilege. I consider myself honored to support the female-only team of Aurora New Dawn in the way that I can, by working on their website.
Craissati, Jackie. (2005). Sexual violence against women: A psychological approach to the assessment and management of rapists in the community. Probation Journal. 52. 401-422. 10.1177/0264550505058950.
Ghilzai, Shazia & Alam, Rabia & Ahmad, Zubair & Shaukat, Amina & Shahum, Syeda & Noor,. (2017). Impact of Cartoon Programs on Children’s Language and Behavior. ILSC. 2. 104-126.
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