It’s quite impressive of Disney to be thoughtful and flexible in transforming their princesses over the generations. It’s almost never talked about, but it can be pretty overwhelming how creating a Disney princess can be a huge responsibility. If you look at it closely, it’s beyond a documentation of an era; it’s also building an invisible vehicle for social and psychological influence. When you ask a child to think of a “princess”, their top-of-the-head answer won’t probably be a real one.
While Disney has been coming up with princesses of color, sociologist Charu Uppal opined that the classic ones (those who were light-skinned and “beautiful”) were still preferred by non-Western girls. No doubt, these female figures, though unreal, can unconsciously contribute to how women view themselves and live their lives.
Scrutinizing the growing Disney princess lineup, we can see how Disney’s gaze on princesses have evolved over time. The early ones, Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, follow a formula where romance is a constant. There is a dominant element of needing to be rescued by a Prince Charming for it to have a happy ending. I never understood that as a child, but once a song’s stuck in your head, you still play it even though you know how it ends. For a while, that was the classic Disney princess etched in our minds: forever waiting, lovestruck, dreamy, passive, and most of the time, white.
The Disney princesses from the late 2010s shifted to active and rebellious roles. In Brave, we see a strong-spirited Merida controlling her fate by fighting for her freedom. In Moana, we see a non-gowned princess who finishes a quest with the intent to save her people. It’s a complete turn from how Disney usually develops its princesses—from damsels in distress to damsels in prowess. We can say that it’s Disney’s punk rock move to prompt the whole fanbase into a grand graduation. Prince Charming who? Goodbye to sugary and dramatic plots, hello to spicy and self-driving stories!
Further diversifying its princess pool, Disney recently released Raya and The Last Dragon in Disney+. The film roars with its very own vibrant Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), the first ever Southeast Asian Disney princess. It also continues to break the glazed princess script by presenting a relatable character who struggles with an internal conflict (in Raya’s case, her trust issues), solves it herself (yep, not a Prince Charming) and, in effect, saves the world.
But Raya and The Last Dragon isn’t primarily princess-focused: it is intended to be more of a courageous story about fixing something bigger than oneself. It follows Raya’s quest to save and restore Kumandra (her divided homeland) after being attacked by a mysterious plague called the Druun, an evil entity that turns people into stone. Along the way, she meets a trippy-looking and optimistic dragon named Sisu (Awkwafina) who balances her cynical attitude, as well as other comical sidekicks who she had to learn to trust so she can fulfill her mission.
If you think that the plot sounds formulaic (a character with a creature friend is TOO familiar), you’re not wrong. But Raya and The Last Dragon’s interesting point is the timing of its release. Landing on Disney+ at the height of recent Asian hate crimes, the film’s celebration of Southeast Asia was a stark contrast to headlines about Asian-Americans being attacked. Another interesting point is how the film sparked confusion from its intended audience: while the film was specific about Raya being a Southeast Asian, the cast was mostly East Asian except for Tran, dimming the spotlight for pure Southeast Asian representation.
Tran, the first Southeast Asian Disney princess, humbly stated in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres that she hopes the film brings joy in a dire time. True enough, Raya is such a sweet treat for the eyes and an easily rewatchable film; though it’s no doubt more attractive to younger viewers.
For older viewers, it can be more intriguing than enjoyable, as it ambitiously tries to present itself as more than just a positive distraction. Tapping heavier issues about politics and community, the film speaks about how envy for power can lead to betrayals and mistrust within individuals and communities. The film succeeds in its emphasis on the importance of unity and trust in healing communal wounds, but its use of a magic-only solution to fix everything makes its ending idealistic rather than inspiring to those who crave communal restoration in real life.