ALL YEAR LONG the same thing happened: Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan, Tiana, Snow White and more popped up in your feed over and over (and over) again, each time rendered in a new variation on their original animated states. They were steampunk, they were movie monsters, and they were (totally edible!) hot dogs. Somehow, each new Disney princess iteration sounded -- and typically was -- more eye-roll ridiculous than the last. And yet, it was impossible to look away from the relentless stream of re-creations hitting the Internet every day. That was the 2015 I -- and presuming you are a web-frequenting American human, you -- experienced. But did you ever stop to think about why?
Why couldn't you resist clicking to see what Sleeping Beauty and company looked like with short hair? Why were these characters suddenly muses to so many artists? And why were these reimaginings all cropping up at the same time?
The cynic in me is tempted to chalk it up to mere nostalgia, but then we would have seen the same or similar frenzied attention for other Disney characters or pop culture icons (animated or otherwise), right? Instead, something particular to the Disney princesses made them the perfect subjects to dismantle and build back up again. (That they were already beloved to the point where they'd be guaranteed attention on a cluttered Internet probably added to their allure.)
In pursuit of answers, I first set out to pin down how this all started. The first reimagined princesses to break through were largely general nostalgia plays -- princesses as pop stars or other iconic characters. They bubbled up sparingly in 2014, but by the top of 2015, things began to pick up -- both in the sheer volume of altered princesses inundating our feeds every day and the themes applied to them.
Disney Princesses And Gender Representation
These reimaginings quickly began taking on decidedly feminist undertones: Disney princesses with realistic body hair, realistic makeup, or even no makeup at all. As a collective body, these characters evolved into a canvas onto which we could project our frustrations with archetypal female imagery.
"The Disney princesses are fantastic icons to work with in terms of debating feminism," Dr. Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario, a lecturer at Monash University and author of "The Princess and the Magic Kingdom: Beyond Nostalgia, the Function of the Disney Princess," told me via email. "Actually, over time, the princesses have progressively embodied changes in social attitudes to gender politics. Indeed, an outspoken, young feminist leader, Emma Watson, is playing Belle in the upcoming 'Beauty and the Beast.' However, the princesses also embody the problems in gender representation and so they make a wonderful canvas for conflicting and diverse ideas about femininity, feminism and female status."
Whether we were conscious of it or not, the trajectory of the Disney princess in recent years led us square to this point.
The Newly Woke Disney Princess
2009 gave us "The Princess and the Frog," featuring not only the first black Disney princess but the only entrepreneur of the bunch. 2012's "Brave" introduced Merida, the antithesis of a damsel in distress and a princess who, refreshingly, DGAF about finding a prince. Then in 2014, Disney hit the princess boiling point with "Frozen," a film about the relationship between two strong female characters that so permeated pop culture it helped usher in a new era in which it was genuinely cool to like Disney and princesses again. In fact, "Frozen" has had so much staying power that despite being released late November 2013, it was still so relevant two full years later that Taylor Swift not only incorporated it into the very last North American show of her 1989 world tour, she made headlines doing so.
The age of the newly woke Disney princess is, in many ways, a direct result of our own elevated collective consciousness about gender. "The [princess] stories are much more involved today, and I think that requires more depth and a little more from the character that's driving the story," Disney animator Mark Henn told MTV News at the company's 2015 D23 Expo.
Henn -- the animator responsible for Jasmine (“Aladdin”), Belle (“Beauty and the Beast”), Ariel (“The Little Mermaid”), Mulan (“Mulan”), Tiana ("The Princess & The Frog") and Anna (“Frozen”) -- added that, "In the past, the leading ladies were a little more like victims -- things happened to them and they would just go, 'Woe is me.'" This teed us up not only to latch on to more powerful, self-aware princess characters, but also to prod at the shortcomings of the princesses who came before. As the princesses change and grow, they continue to inspire generations of girls to drive further forward the commentary on gender representation.
But the princesses could not evolve in this way -- and subsequently, neither could their Internet reimaginings -- if IRL culture had not done so first. "The efforts of key figures in popular culture, like Emma Watson and Beyoncé, to identify with and advocate for feminism has, I think, made it easier to engage with feminism through popular culture," Do Rozario explained. "Indeed, feminism is becoming a greater part of our popular culture, particularly over the last year or so, which is fantastic. I think this does set the stage for much more feminist engagement with popular figures like the princesses and for that engagement to attract a lot more attention."
Millenial Women Are Shaping The Internet
At the epicenter of these feminist renderings of Disney princesses are the Millennials, particularly Millennial women. The experience of the average female Millennial in 2015 is a cocktail that combines three key parts: a childhood of cutting her teeth on the '90s golden era of Disney princesses (Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan), growing from adolescence into adulthood in the thick of third-wave feminism, and having access to the Internet for the totality of her life. It's these Millenial women who now make up a large portion of the creators on the Internet today. With their feet squarely planted in both feminist awakening and '90s childhood nostalgia, it's at this intersection that we find Disney princesses dismantled and pieced back together in these young women's own image.
Roosa Karlsson -- better known as The Nameless Doll on Tumblr and Deviant Art -- is an 18-year-old digital compositor and illustrator from Sweden, and she's also the mastermind behind many of the most viral Disney princess reimaginings of the past year, particularly the princesses with short hair and without baby faces.
"In the case of my 'short hair' edits, it was simply about seeing something that we rarely find -- animated heroines with short hairstyles," Karlsson explained to me via email. "Their popularity speaks for itself about the lack of diversity amongst animated women when it comes to such a seemingly simple thing as hair length. If there had already existed more female characters with short hair, then nobody would [have] paid my little project any attention at all."
That's only partly true, as plenty of less socially charged princess remixes have also caught their fair share of Internet buzz, but Karlsson makes a good point: much of the fervent attention comes from women being excited to finally see themselves reflected in these beloved characters.
"Taking something well-known and changing it to make a point makes people react, for better or for worse," Karlsson added. "So when you take something like the princess lineup and give them all a new twist, then of course people will talk about it. For me, personally, my goal was never to go viral with my own edits, but I do understand why they did so."
The Power Of The Princess Squad
Karlsson's comment about the "princess lineup" sticks out, as well. It's how Disney has presented the princesses to us again and again -- a clever marketing strategy aiming for the characters to have broad and timeless appeal independent of their films.
"Most of the reimaginings you see online mimic the way the princesses are presented all standing together in formation," Dr. Do Rozario elaborated on the lineup, comparing it to pageant aesthetics. "There is usually a theme to each reimagining, with every princess conforming to the theme, yet still absolutely recognizable as an independent character. There's a playfulness with the personalities of the princesses that I think becomes the attraction. Bookish Belle, ‘tomboyish’ Merida, fashionable Cinderella, sophisticated Jasmine."
Along with highlighting the unique personality traits of each princess, it's this squad formation that allows for the audience to decide which princess is most ~them~. Think of it as the pre-teen version of deciding whether you're a Carrie, a Charlotte, a Samantha, or a Miranda (JK, no one has ever pegged themselves as a Miranda), but unlike the "Sex and the City" characters, most of these princesses are teenagers and -- the earlier princesses, especially -- are not particularly complex or nuanced or empowering.
Rapunzel Needs Recalibrating
Adulthood is when we reckon with our idols, when we find ourselves suddenly eye-to-eye with people we've put on pedestals and examine what ideals they really represented and whether they align with our (now, more solidified) values. As happens with all idols -- whether those are princesses, pop stars, or even parents -- these things don't match up 100%, so the recourse is setting out to adjust that.
In the case of human beings we make our idols, the recalibration comes from within -- we decide to abandon the pop star that betrayed our values, or we accept that yes, even parents have faults. With the princesses, we benefit from the fact that cartoons are highly malleable -- just a pen stroke or digital manipulation and they appear as you need them to: in old age, with tattoos, or even as Cher and Dionne. The princesses' flaws -- unrealistic or antiquated physical ideals -- bend at our own hands and are recirculated for the community's benefit.
Groundwork For Change
A perfect storm of feminism meeting nostalgia and a wealth of culturally conscious creators and consumers helped usher in the colossal influx of reimagined Disney princesses in the last year. We were graced with princesses as Britney Spears and with bodies that more closely resemble real women, as the 2016 presidential candidates and with physical disabilities too often left unrepresented. We've gotten makeup transformations, mermaid GIFs, and even a few Madonna makeouts, but the renderings reached an apex and only now are beginning to fatigue their rabid Internet audience.
However, in my correspondence with Karlsson in particular, it was clear a substantial benefit arose from all of this scrutiny of princesses past.
"Animation is one of those mediums where we create every single aspect of a character's design from scratch. We have all the creative control in the world to make them completely unique and one of a kind," she concluded. "The possibilities are endless, but the majority of animated leads, especially women, are haunted by the social and cultural biases that their designers possess. This leads to very little variety on all levels; race, ethnicity, orientations, facial features, body types, and even small things like hair length. ... That is why reimagined fan art that stems from diversity interests so many people: because it is something new."
Had I ever seen a cartoon princess with body hair before, I probably wouldn't have been so pressed to click that link. Nor would I have felt so vindicated in my own natural hair-having-ness that I immediately sent it to every other woman with whom I've had an in-depth discussion of happy trails (surprisingly, there are a lot, but that's another essay, I guess).
Despite there being 79 years between the present day and when the very first Disney princess film ("Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs") was released, each princess remix over the past year has been a truly novel idea because there has been minimal variation in the princesses up until the last few years. Disney only first started introducing ethnic diversity into the princess lineup in the '90s, and even then, it's 2016 and we still don't have a Hispanic/Latina princess.
The good news, though, is that constant barrage of reimaginings hitting our feeds has already laid a lot of the groundwork for change. For a year, princesses of all shapes, sizes, and styles held an audience captivated, providing previously unseen representation to women around the world. Using these remixes as a litmus test, an even more multifaceted princess lineup shouldn't be that far-off -- should Disney choose to pay attention. There's more than sufficient proof now that these princesses have the power to draw in anyone no matter what they look like, so why not make them look like everyone?