If you have daughters, you might be able to steer clear of the American Girl dolls, but you cannot avoid the Disney princesses. They’re in movies and on lunchboxes. There are raincoats and boots and vitamins with them. There are dolls and sticker sets and games where you build plastic cupcakes tailor-made for each character. The princesses are inescapable.
Some are wonderful characters and excellent role models for the important young ladies in your life. Others are . . . less so. Herewith is a ranking of the Disney princesses by moral character and general awesomeness:
#9 Ariel: The Little Mermaid may have been the movie that reinvigorated Disney animation, but as an example for little girls, it’s the worst.
The real story of the movie is that a man’s daughter falls in love with some guy she’s never even spoken with, goes through body modification in the hopes that he’ll love her back—and then her moronic crush costs her father his kingdom.
Imagine your daughter coming home and saying, “Dad, this biker gang drove through town today and the guy leading it was amazing and I love him. I’m going to get a bunch of piercings and tattoos so that I can join the gang. And then I just know he’ll love me back!!” Well, that’s what Ariel does. And her father winds up paying for the tats.
And the “happy” ending in all of this is that to marry her biker-gang prince, Ariel has to live in a whole new world and be separated from her father for the rest of his life. Which she does without any hesitation. At all.
Keep your daughters far, far away from this movie.
#8 Pocahontas: The lessons of Pocahontas might be worse. A band of conquistadors suddenly appears and will soon commit genocide against the Native American people. But one of these guys is dreamy! So Pocahontas lectures her dad about stereotyping and Anglophobia.
The only reason Pocahontas is ranked above Ariel is that she actually talks to John Smith before falling in love with the dope and betraying her people.
#7 Tiana/Rapunzel: You might not realize it, but the characters from Tangled and The Princess and the Frog have a lot in common: They’re plucky. They believe in the power of their dreams. And they teach girls a terrible lesson: No matter how bad a boy might seem on the surface, a girl can change him through the power of love.
Here’s a Life Spoiler for little princesses who think they can change bad boys: No, you can’t.
#6 Aurora/Snow White: Two more princesses with a lot in common. They’re both blank slates who spend the interesting parts of their movies asleep. And they both teach girls that good-hearted people trust strangers.
#5 Jasmine: The moral lesson at the heart of Aladdin is pretty much: Your father doesn’t know best and you should rebel against him. Hard.
But in fairness to Princess Jasmine, her father is a weak, easily-led fool. So while Princess Jasmine isn’t a good role model for your daughter—because you’re not a dimwitted sultan—she’s just fine for girls with rotten or absent fathers.
#4 Belle: Now we get to the good princesses. Beauty and the Beast is the most Broadway of the Disney movies and, as such, is kind of annoying. But the moral of the story is fantastic: Don’t automatically trust the good-looking, popular jock because he’s probably a bro-creep—even if everyone else likes him.
That’s the textual message. The subtext is even better: Belle teaches girls that reading is the gateway to a life of adventure. As the kids say, +1.
Also: Belle is willing to go to prison in exchange for her father’s freedom. Which makes it totally worth sitting through the cloying show tunes.
#3 Mulan: Where Belle offers to be thrown in a dungeon to secure her father’s safety, Mulan goes to war for her dad. The message of Mulan for girls is simple, unmistakable, and awesome: Honor and family before all.
#2 Anna and Elsa: The Frozen princesses get grouped together even though they offer different lessons.
Elsa is a model of self-sacrifice and filial love. Also, repression: She holds back her mutant powers for years after her father’s death in deference to his memory. Also, she understands that it would be insane for her sister to marry a guy she just met.
And Anna, for her part, ditches not one, but two dreamboats in order to save her sister. She’s even ready to get sliced in half by a broadsword for Elsa. Because she knows that love for her family trumps boy-crushes. All hail Anna, the anti-Ariel.
#1 Cinderella: Disney’s greatest princess is also its most underappreciated. The conventional wisdom on Cinderella is that she’s a Mary Sue who does nothing except wait for a prince to rescue her. But that’s dead wrong. Cinderella is the embodiment of two of great virtues: courage and kindness. She suffers terribly, the victim of both circumstance and genuine evil. And yet she is neither embittered nor defeated.
Disney’s 2015 live-action Cinderella makes the lesson explicit. As Cinderella’s mother lay dying, she tells her daughter, “I have to tell you a secret that will see you through all the trials that life can offer: Have courage and be kind.” Those are words to live by.
Cinderella is an object lesson in humanity and grace—not just for little girls, but for everyone.