How ‘Moana’ Finally Settled The Disney Princess Debate

disney princess

Disney’s Moana was a fantastic animated musical, and one of the main reasons why has to do with its handling of the female protagonist, Moana herself.

The animation studio was essentially founded on the cornerstone of the “princess” being a driving force of fairy tale movies, which eventually evolved into increasingly more diverse types of stories. Specifically, Snow White laid the groundwork as one of the best films of all time (animated or otherwise), as well Disney’s first feature film. And they later built upon this with Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty as smart ways to repeat Snow White‘s massive success.

This ended up being a saving grace for Disney after multiple near-catastrophes with bad box office, animator strikes, and so on, though Walt still believed in experimenting with non-princess movies like Peter PanPinocchioDumbo, and of course, Mary Poppins.

Long after his death in 1966, the Disney Princess transformed from an idea to an actual media franchise worth an insane amount of money and indicative of Disney’s influence over generations of children. In the early 2000s, it became an official thing, combining the classic Disney princesses of the old days with recent heroines of the 90s renaissance. And the criteria, at the time, was confusing to say the least.

disney princess

Obviously, Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora were “inducted” into the official Disney Princess brand. Joining them was Ariel from The Little Mermaid, another obvious choice though different in the sense that she’s royalty of an underwater culture. Then Belle from Beauty and the Beast, who doesn’t technically become a princess until the very end of the movie.

Jasmine from Aladdin was another obvious choice, though striking because she was the first Disney princess to be nonwhite, and she’s more of a supporting character than a lead protagonist. Jasmine was followed up by two consecutive nonwhite Disney princesses, though: Pocahontas and Mulan. Though Tinker Bell from Peter Pan was technically a Disney Princess for a short time before getting replaced by Tiana and becoming a home video sensation.

They didn’t include Nala or Kiara from Lion King, which seems to be because animals simply don’t qualify. Same goes for Esmerelda from Hunchback of Notre Dame because she’s technically a gypsy, Megara from Hercules, and Jane from Tarzan. The first “modern” princess was Tiana from Princess and the Frog, then Rapunzel from Tangled was added as the first CG character. And the last Disney Princess in the official sense is Merida from Brave, a Pixar movie rather than a Walt Disney Animation one.

disney princess

These are the “official” Disney princesses, but that hasn’t stopped many other fans from considering the wider breadth of characters to fit the bill. Simply because the criteria isn’t always consistent (like with Tinker Bell and Mulan not being royalty). Eventually, Anna from Frozen will be added along with Moana, but no one really believes their status as princesses is held back until Disney slaps their own label on it and has their clique running around Disney World.

A lot of this might sound a bit silly and inconsequential, but there are actually heated debates held by…some…who argue over which Disney female characters are “allowed” to be called Disney princesses. And this is a big deal, in part, because countless kids look to the mainstream Disney princesses as a representation of themselves in these movies. Parents want their kids to have positive role models, and the Disney princesses, like it or not, are a major cultural force in that regard.

The more recent Disney princess from CG animated films definitely fit the more literal interpretation of what’s become such a pervasive line of business for these animated films. But Moana subtly settles this debate, I believe, once and for all. It points out that the semantics don’t matter, really, as Disney seems intent on including future princesses as it sees fit.


The pivotal line between Maui and Moana is what specifically points this out. Maui tells Moana she is a “princess,” but she denies this because she’s actually the daughter of a Chief (the literal view). But Maui banters back with self-awareness on the writers’ part:

“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, then you’re a princess.” 

What he really seems to be saying here is that it doesn’t really matter. What makes these characters “princesses” has very little to do with royal bloodlines and more with the tropes that Disney infuses in its protagonists and supporting characters. A dress and an animal sidekick are incredibly broad. so Disney can in effect say from here on out that there’s no reason to overthink this merchandising franchise they’re so clearly benefiting from.

And that’s fine because it allows Disney to incorporate as many different cultures, hair colors, and clothing styles as they can with their princess characters, but not at the expense of the story making sense. Or worse, always falling back on traditional princess tales instead of doing something as “culturealistic” as Moana and Mulan.


Moving forward, I like to think that this line by Maui was allowed in the movie because they’re acknowledging how limiting it is to hold back the Disney Princess inclusivity for the sake of being so literal. It’s not relevant how these characters look on a family tree, but rather that they’re interesting characters who follow a consistent aesthetic and type of storytelling that’s proven incredibly successful for Disney since the 30s. Maybe one day, it won’t even be questioned whether or not a Disney princess is one because she wears a dress, especially if you consider the fact that they included Merida, a princess who is usually shown with her bow and arrow rather than a bucket of glitter.

But one thing’s for certain. The best Disney princess is obviously Lilo.

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33 replies to How ‘Moana’ Finally Settled The Disney Princess Debate

    • Your bae

  1. What about Melody, Arial’s daughter from The Little Mermaid 2. She is a princess. Then there is the princess from the Black Cauldron. I consider them Disney princesses.

    • She was introduced in a sequel, so she isn’t counted as a official Disney Princess

    • One of Disney’s rules on who becomes a princess is that they can’t be introduced in a sequel. Although Melody 100% qualifies as royalty, she doesn’t as an official Disney princess due to this fact. Another silly rule by Disney is that it has to make enough $$ in box office. That is why Princess Eilonwy (of Black Cauldron) didn’t make the cut.

      • I did not know about those rules, thanks for letting me know.

    • One o the rules of becoming a Disney princess says that you can not be introduced in a sequel, as Ariel’s daughter is.

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  3. Is there a rule saying that the animal you can have for a sidekick has to be with you for 50% of the movie? May I just say that I don’t agree with the pig being Moana’s animal sidekick. the pig didn’t really do squat except look offended when Moana reveled the tribe’s tradition of raising animals and killing them. (Pork) The real animal sidekick would be the chicken, Hei Hei, because he was with her for most of the adventure.

    • Maui never met the pig…he met Hei Hei…animal sidekick he was refering to was Hei Hei, which was much more of a sidekick than Puah (pua?, Poua?)

  4. No love for the princess of Atlantis?

    Everyone forgets that movie existed. Heck, I didn’t even watch it until yesterday on New Year’s Eve with a bunch of my friends.

  5. Lilo………. o.k. ………………I can see that……………………….I personally believe it to be Nala. But hey!………………we all have our…………….”preferences”……………. 😉

  6. Lilo is definitely one of the best Disney princesses. (I mean, Belle is and always will be my favorite, but Lilo’s pretty great, too.)
    Also, I don’t think they meant anything as deep as this when they added the lines. It’s one of my favorite lines in the movie, since it’s basically poking fun at the original princesses, but they couldn’t of had this issue in mind when they wrote it.

  7. There is criteria for being a Disney Princess. First, you must meet one of three requirements: You must be born royal, marry royal, or perform and act of heroism. That last one was probably added in just for Mulan, but it can now also apply to Moana, who saved the land and ocean. Then there are some small requirements you must also meet. You must be animated, as it is easier to find look-alikes for the part this way. That is why Giselle from Enchanted is not a Disney Princess. Then, you must be human. This excludes Nala. You also cannot star in your sequel. For example, Ariel does not star in her sequel, her daughter does. If she did, she could not be a Disney Princess. And finally there is the big one: you must be a box office success. This is why some people you would expect to be princesses are not. Such as Kida from Atlantis. So if we look at the criteria, Moana is human, animated, has performed an act of heroism, and was definitely a box office success, so she can definitely become a Disney Princess.
    I would also like to note that bringing a lot of money can also prevent you from becoming a princess. This is exactly what happened to Anna and Elsa. A lot of people think the Anna will b added soon and Elsa does not count because she is a queen, but this is untrue. They are not Disney Princesses because they made so much money, they became their own franchise.

    • I don’t think the staring in a sequal one is true, because there are plenty of others movies where the princesses are the lead, for example mulan in her sequal. Also Moana can be a princess because she was born royal because her dad is the chief.

      • I can clarify this point. The character must be in the first movie and not first introduced in the sequel.

  8. The female characters in the other movies are princesses because the man they marry is the person who is going to take the throne.

    The difference in Moana is that she destined to become the next chief, regardless of gender

  9. Anna and elsa will never be disney princesses, because disney makes significantly more money from them being their own franchise then they ever would being grouped with the other princesses. There are two sets of criteria for a disney princess: first, they must meet all of the following criteria- 1. Must be a human, 2. Must be a leading female role in an animated disney movie, 3. Was not introduced in a sequel.
    Then, they must meet one of the following- 1. They were born royal, 2. They married royal, 3. They completed a significant act of heroism (this was put in place for mulan so she could be a disney princess). Then, there is the unspoken rule that the movie must be a box office success, this being the downfall of a some princesses like esmeralda. Anna and elsa had a problem with the box office, but not in the same way esmeralda did. They were too successful

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  11. “Nala from The Lion King doesn’t count because animals don’t qualify. Same goes for Esmeralda because she’s technically a gypsy.”
    Uhm…gypsies are human. I’m very confused why her being a gypsy is the barring factor or why it was writing as if gypsies are animals.

  12. Lilo is great, but it’s not like people are just making up a debate to make up a debate and be exclusive. Disney has official rules. That’s why some count and some don’t.

  13. thats a pretty straight way to settle in disney 😀 like the reading your article. Thanks.

  14. She was introduced in a sequel, so she isn’t counted as a official Disney Princess

  15. Disney has a lot of great movies and princess in the movies are always beautiful. No doubt, team works really hard.

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  17. I love Disney movies and his character. When i was 8 year old i love to enjoy the whole disney cartoon and movies. Most character and emotion are give lesson us for the life.

  18. Disney Princess transformed from an idea to an actual media franchise worth an insane amount of money

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