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Disney Totally Changed Its Princesses 25 Years Ago Starting with The Little Mermaid — And No One Noticed

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Starting with the Little Mermaid in 1989, Disney changed its princesses from passive to active:

In an interview, Disney songwriter Alan Menken explained the origin of what he calls the "I want" song, a song where the central character (usually one of Disney's princesses) revealed their quest, and what it was they wanted from it, to the audience.

While we can easily think of plenty of examples of those songs now, at the time (when Menken was working on The Little Mermaid's "Part of Your World"), it was an unusual number to add. It quickly, however, became a convention, with songwriters adding one to every soundtrack. And that simple change sparked a significant shift in how those stories unfolded:


Is Someday My Prince Will Come not an I want song? Also Once upon a Dreamseems to run right up to the edge of the concept. No, they're not great, empowering I want anthems, but they seem to be I want songs all the same.

Sans Souci

If you compare those two songs to "Part of Your World" or "Just Around the Riverbend" or "Belle", I think there's a clear difference. The heroines in these three songs actually do something about the thing that they want ("I want, therefore I will"), while the heroines in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty take a markedly passive role in their own fate ("I want, therefore I will lie here like a corpse until it/he shows up").

. . .

In these earlier films, the heroines "want", but I don't think that sets them on any particular journey (save for perhaps Cinderella, who does arrange things to go to the ball). Snow White wants a Prince, but she doesn't go out looking for him, she just wants to run away from her evil stepmother. Sleeping Beauty wants the hot stud she dreamed about, but it's the curse that gets her the Prince, not her own actions.

Maybe "I Want" is not a label that unquestionably distinguishes one type of song from the others, but these "I Want" songs Menken talks about are so full of active action, I think it successfully represents what he means.

Either way, the concept itself (and the sort of narrative revolution it started) is pretty fascinating.

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