The Evolution of the Disney Prince
In 1937, Walt Disney invented the Disney Prince. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the prince falls in love with a princess at the beginning of the story, disappears for the bulk of the film, and arrives at the end to save her life with an effortless kiss. Although subsequent princes are often lumped together as if all of a type with this first edition of the model of romantic manhood, the Disney storytellers have actually spent 73 years gradually undermining this image.
The Nameless Prince
At least in the Disney version of the Snow White story the prince does something. In the classic fairy tale a prince shows up after Snow White is in the glass coffin, buys her from the dwarfs, and then trundles her away. The bumpy ride dislodges a piece of apple in Snow White’s throat and she wakes up. That might be the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard. And what a shining example of manhood this purchaser of dead bodies is! The Disney storytellers at least had the insight to know that if there was going to be a romantic “happily ever after” and not merely a creepy one, the prince should already be in love with Snow White, long before her coma. So they have him spy on her as she does her chores, and then he chases her into a building, by way of introduction. Although his life-saving actions at the end have been upgraded a little from those of Accidental Heimlich Champion of the World, there still isn’t much for a boy to look up to in this first iteration of the Disney Prince. Most of the heroic battling of evil is done by the dwarfs; most of the relationship building is done by the dwarfs. The prince doesn’t do much beyond fall in love. Love at first sight, as a storytelling conceit, can be forgiven; making the love interest a walking pair of magic lips can’t be.
Disney upgraded the role of the Disney Prince in Cinderella (1950). This time, the prince isn’t just a wandering peeping tom with magic lips: he has a place to live and dance, and a father, and even a minor quest. He has something to be (even if it’s just a prize), and he has something to do (even if it is just to find the right sized foot). The meeting with Cinderalla, their dance at the ball, is more substantial than the Nameless Prince’s meeting with Snow White. Their relationship, and his subsequent drive to find her again, makes more sense. So the prince himself is more of a genuine person than his ancestor, even if he still doesn’t have a name (although he is known, now, as “Prince Charming”, that wasn’t a name given to him in the film). But overall, the changes to the role are still fairly minor: He is still handsome, he is still a prince, he still falls in love at first sight, and he still does very little to actually help the princess character. Her climactic escape from her room, circumventing her stepmother, is accomplished with the help of her animal friends, not through any heroism on his part. So in the end it wasn’t much of a reevaluation of the role the prince should play in romantic fairy tales, and even the minor adjustments that were made took 13 years of storytelling evolution to accomplish.
Twenty-two years after the Disney storytellers first introduced the world to the ineffectual do-nothing prince in Snow White, they finally gave a name to the character filling this role in Sleeping Beauty (1959): Prince Phillip. Prince Phillip gets to do a lot of things his predecessors never did: He gets captured and imprisoned by Maleficent, does deeds of derring-do, and talks to his horse. He also remains a lot like his predecessors: he falls in love at first sight, during a song-and-dance number, and has magic lips. At one and the same time Prince Phillip is a full character and remains something less than. Because although he gets his own adventures, misadventures, and extended dialogue and interactions with characters other than the princess, he is still, despite appearances, not really the hero of the story. Just as Snow White had the dwarfs, and Cinderella had the mice, Sleeping Beauty has the Good Fairies. Prince Phillip is a tool for their doo-goodedness. Sure, he’s the one falling in love and getting captured and wielding the sword and shield that help him slay the dragon, but his actual heroism is just secondary to theirs. They plot, plan, take action, design ways to save Aurora from the curse. When it looks like all hope is lost, they find the one tool that can save the day: Prince Phillip’s lips. Sure, to get those lips to the castle means getting the dragon out of the way first, so he has to have a sword and shield; but really Phillip is just a tool the Good Fairies use in their battle against Maleficent. He exhibits bravery and love and resilience, but his bravery and love and resilience are not the focus of the story. Sleeping Beauty, though a better use of the male romantic lead, is still not very far removed from the usage in Snow White.
Over the next thirty years, the Disney Prince would change very little. His next appearance, as Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid (1989), is a reversal of a kind, since he is the one who is in need of saving. But as a character he does very little that’s worth being interested in: He gets saved, falls blurrily in love, falls silently in love, falls magically in love, and finally realizes what is going on and steers a ship into the villain. Replace ship with sword, Giant Ursula with Giant Dragon Maleficent, and what you have in Prince Eric is actually a much less robust version of the Disney Prince than you had in Phillip. He is there mostly as a stand-in for the world of humans that Ariel wants to join. But, as noted above, he does represent a small development in the concept of the Disney Prince: the Prince is no longer just a pair of magic lips, or a tool of other heroes. Now he is also vulnerable in a way no previous version had been. He can be tricked, he can need saving.
Gaston and The Beast
It is not until Beauty and the Beast (1991) that the Disney storytellers really began to undermine the concept of the Disney Prince, long established now, and reinforced in iteration after iteration despite subtle changes to his role in the fairy tale stories. Who was the Prince now, in popular culture? He was handsome, brave, strong, and the female lead in the story loved him immediately. Those were defining characteristics of the romantic male ideal in the Disney retellings of fairy tales. But with Beauty and the Beast this concept gets turned, almost, on its head. First, all of the qualities associated with being a Disney Prince are imbued in Gaston, the loutish local huntsman who wants to marry Belle. He is handsome, brave, and strong (“No one fights like Gaston…”), but we recognize, finally, that this isn’t enough. He’s not actually a worthwhile person. He’s not technically a prince, but he’s the ideal that’s been trotted out time and time again, and now it is found lacking. The Beast, on the other hand, is menacing, ugly, and selfish. And although it may seem like the story is about Belle, and how she overcomes her prejudices to eventually see the man beneath the fur, she doesn’t really have anything to overcome. She has never fallen for Gaston, the man of outer-beauty, so the transition from fearing the Beast to respecting and loving him is not as big a stretch as it could have been. The Beast is the one who undergoes both the metaphoric and literal transformation in the story. He’s the one with the nemesis in Gaston, he’s the one with personal trials, personal flaws. He is, really, the protagonist. It is disappointing that in the end he gets to be a handsome prince again, after he’s learned his lesson. But Beauty and the Beast still represents a dramatic subversion of the Disney Prince concept.
Like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin (1992) is a dramatic subversion of the Disney Prince concept. It is not part of the slow evolution seen in Charming, Phillip, and Eric. Aladdin is another attempt to show that the romantic male lead can have a personality (where the Beast had a personality disorder, Aladdin has charm and humour.) For the first time, the romantic male lead in a fairy tale retelling is not, himself, a prince. Even the Beast was a prince, though it was suppressed until the end of the story. Aladdin is not strong, though he might be considered brave and handsome. He survives with speed and intelligence. He is unentitled, which contrasts powerfully with the entitlement of even the Beast, abiding in his castle. He is Disney’s self-evaluation of the prince-princess genre: He believes that his princess won’t fall in love with him unless he is himself a prince, so he makes that his first wish when he meets the genie of the lamp. Jasmine, the princess, rejects him much like Beauty rejects Gaston: all of the trappings of the classic Prince archetype are not enough for a believable connection anymore. In the end, he returns to his street-urchin identity by choice, and uses cleverness rather than weapons or strength to win the fight against his enemy. Even more so than in Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin brings the Prince front and center, as a fully-realized character, with challenges to overcome and a personal journey to make.
In The Princess and the Frog (2009), the Disney storytellers take the Disney Prince concept almost as far as it will go. Prince Naveen is a real prince, but he is spoiled by his status. Instead of being internally noble and brave just in virtue of being a prince, as the very early versions had been, Naveen is grasping and lazy. Just as Gaston and Aladdin had been attempts to show that the character traits of the Disney Prince weren’t enough, now Prince Naveen shows that being an actual prince is also not enough, especially if he lacks any of the classic characteristics. Naveen is only interested in getting married to a rich girl. By the end of the story he has given up this aspiration, having fallen in love with the frog version of Tiana. He has also given up his vanity, since he elects to remain a frog. He develops a nobility that didn’t come automatically with his station. The story is as much his as it is Tiana’s, and he has opportunities to be brave without strength, noble without stature, and charming without looks. As with the Beast, his reward for learning how to be worth loving is to be returned to his handsome prince form, so in that respect he doesn’t move as far away from the archetype as Aladdin does. But he also starts from a much less typical place: even Aladdin starts out as a basically good guy; Naveen has to achieve Princehood, in a way, and it is that journey, not the end-result, that makes him interesting as a character.
Flynn Rider (a.k.a. Eugene)
Now that Disney has given us Flynn Rider in Tangled (2010), it’s very difficult to see what else they can do to the concept of a Disney Prince. In Flynn, the male romantic lead has finally become a rogue. The closest a Disney Prince had come to being a rogue in the past was Aladdin, but he was more oppressed than vicious. Flynn Rider is completely untrustworthy, caring only about himself. His dream is to live alone on an island, “surrounded by enormous piles of money.” When we meet him he has just completed a theft, then betrayed his compatriots. He has looks and charm, but unlike Aladdin or earlier princes, he knows he has looks and charm: they are just tools to him, and the way he deploys them against Rapunzel when she captures him speaks to a long history of manipulating women to get his way. “You leave me no choice. Here comes the smolder,” he announces, before turning on his best Blue Steel. He has neither Aladdin’s inner goodness, nor Naveen’s outer position. He is not a hidden prince, or a false prince, as the Beast and Aladdin are. He’s just this guy. He’s Eugene.
And even being “just this guy”, Tangled presents him, in the end, as a worthwhile person. While Aladdin chooses to go back to his old identity out of nobility, and Naveen chooses to remain a frog forever, Flynn sacrifices his own life to try to help Rapunzel get free from the witch. That is miles away from merely being a body with magic lips, or even being a sword-wielding dragon slayer. In Flynn Rider (a.k.a. Eugene), the Disney Prince finally just becomes a guy who has a lot of stuff to overcome to let someone else into his life, but then commits so strongly to that person that he dies for her. His starting point is the lowest: orphan, greedy, vain, selfish. In the end, though, he is more noble than even the classic Prince. And it’s not because he was born that way, and it’s not because he has magic lips: it’s because he makes the right choice, and pays the highest price.
Disney doesn’t have a great reputation for its Princesses, or for the culture that has sprung up around them in the last ten or fifteen years. But it has, I think, an unacknowledged history of trying to undermine the Prince archetype it introduced in 1937. As the years have gone on, the subversion has grown increasingly dramatic: In the early versions the attempts seemed to focus on trying to make the Prince a more realized person; in the middle versions the attempts focused on recognizing that the Prince trope was a little empty; and in the later versions the attempts were focused on subverting the concept entirely, to enshrine nobility in choice and transformative journeys rather than in accidents of status or innate natures. Flynn Rider might be the last of the Disney Princes, and he’s not a bad one for us to live happily ever after with.