The “what is history” category demonstrates that Disney makes the recognizable past way more magical than it really was. Previous princess films were acted out on the backdrop of ambiguous place and time. Belle started the rend of recognizable history in provincial France, but it was when I realized that the stories of Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), and Mulan (1998) were not appropriate answers on history tests that I experienced true disappointment. I probably should have guessed that Jasmine wouldn’t have been allowed to wear such a skimpy getup; that colonization was not that rosy and romantic, that even in Native American tribes trees didn’t talk, and that Pocahontas could not actually paint with the colors of the wind; that the legendary Mulan didn’t have a sassy pet dragon. History textbooks would have been so much more interesting to flip through if any of those weren’t a figment of Disney’s imagination. Even if their places in history are completely fictional, Disney’s Jasmine, Pocahontas and Mulan show movement in the right direction for strong, relatable, role model princesses.
Family lives for these historical protagonists starts breaking from the established script. While Jasmine (like others) grows up with only her little, round, happy father to parent her, he seems more like a traditional maternal figure than the powerful sultan. The law states that Jasmine must marry a prince before her next birthday, and her father is the ruler, so that causes tension. Pocahontas can relate; her dad (the chief of her tribe) wants her to marry one of his greatest warriors, not so subtly gifting her dead mother’s wedding necklace to her with the news of the potential engagement. She and her dad have a pretty violent disagreement over the colonists…so violent, in fact, that Pocahontas almost gets her head chopped off. Awkward. Lucky for Pocahontas, she has “Grandmother Willow” to tell her to follow her own path (even if said grandmother is a tree, the advice stands). Mulan is different in that she grows up with both parents, a wonderfully feisty grandmother, and more ghostly ancestors than she knows what to do with. She also exhibits more family loyalty than any of the other princesses when she tries to be someone she’s not (a perfect bride) to bring them honor before cross-dressing and doing the right thing, saving all of China in the process.
All three take part in different friend circles. Jasmine sticks to convention by having her only friend be an animal, more specifically a tiger named Rajah. It doesn’t seem like there are many people in her absolutely huge palace for her to be friends with (other than creepy Jafar) which explains her lack of acclimation when she tries to escape into the city: you can’t just take apples, Jasmine, geeze. Pocahontas, like Jasmine and most other princesses, finds herself sketched with a slew of animal buddies (most notably Meeko the raccoon and Flit the hummingbird). She does have a gal pal named Nakoma, and while the two of them are supposedly besties, Pocahontas ditches her and she ends up getting Kocuom (the Native American suitor) shot and John blamed for it. So, I’m not feeling the closeness. Mulan again proves herself to be a special flower (like her dad says) when she makes friends in the army. These friends stay loyal to her even after it’s revealed that she’s a girl, donning women’s clothes to help save China. What more could a girl ask for?
Oh, the “what is history” love interests: characters, each and every one of them. Aladdin’s a street rat and Jasmine marries way, way, below her station. Despite their magical flying carpet date, he lied about everything while he was courting her. I guess adventuring together and uniting against a common evil erases that because when her dad changes the law so that she chooses her husband, Jasmine uses that power to propose to Aladdin. Jasmine is a pretty typical Disney princess up until this point, but this shift sets her apart and makes her a bit more of a good “role model”—she is not a prize to be won. She will do the winning, thank you kindly. Pocahontas initially starts a conversation with John Smith to sate her curiosity about these strange settlers, but quickly falls in love with him, as they are gallivanting through the forest, singing. There’s the whole messy bit of her almost fiancé getting shot, a war nearly breaking out, the star crossed lovers almost losing their heads, and John getting shot, but in the end they part ways with vows of eternal love and a kiss. Unlike Ariel, Pocahontas chooses her entire world over her relationship, subsequently creating the first untraditional “happy ending” for a Disney princess. Mulan, her intelligent, outspoken personality, and overtly male first impression probably confused the heck out of her poor love interest, Li Shang. Either that, or he’s just horribly awkward around girls; “you, uh… You fight good” is not how your flirt, buddy. The emperor takes pity on him and tries to play matchmaker, but Mulan doesn’t need any help. The very next time she sees him, she asks him to dinner. Despite their rather unconventional origin, Mulan and Shang end up with a solid relationship built on trust and camaraderie. These historical heroines actively work to be the protagonists, saving themselves and their love interests with strong morals, ample skills, and intelligence. They control their destinies and create their own happy endings. Personally, I think Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan are the strongest role models Disney produced in their 20th century princesses.