As Disney’s 100th year approaches, Disney Animation Studios is celebrating its fairytale lore with some major releases. Among them is author Emily Zemler’s Disney Princess: Beyond the Tiara, a visual guide to the Disney Princesses, which will chronicle the impact Disney royalty has had on pop culture since 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Zemler sat down with io9 to share an exclusive look inside the book, chronicling the evolution of the Disney heroine, and to discuss the influence of their legacy as a big part of Disney’s history in film and the Disney Parks.
Sabina Graves, io9: What inspired the idea to bring this visual and informative guide to the Disney Princesses to life?
Emily Zemler: The thought was to look at the Disney Princesses more holistically, trying to figure out both what in pop culture had inspired each of them, but then in turn what each of them had inspired in pop culture. So it’s a circular thing that’s happening where the current pop culture is impacting the art that we make but the art that we make is impacting what is happening in culture. And that’s a really interesting idea. They really wanted to see a full chapter looking at the Disney parks, which isn’t something that I necessarily had realized there was so much scope for. I was really passionate about including chapters about fashion and music. I felt that those were two of the aspects of the Disney Princesses that were really important. We came to an understanding that there needed to be a final chapter looking at the real world impact and how the Disney Princesses have inspired people in their actual lives. And how behind the scenes at Disney, there’s also this reflection of inclusivity that is important going forward.
io9: I love how you put that together, that their cultural impacts have inspired how they’re embraced. And then that also helps shape their evolution in a way, because there’s cynical critiques of them. As time goes on, how they’re embraced by fans really does shape how womanhood is seen through the lens of these characters. In that regard, in what ways do you want to see them continue to evolve? They all represent different forms of strength and courage throughout the eras their films were released.
Zemler: I think one of the really key points in the book is that each Disney princess is a reflection of the time in which she was made. So our values today don’t necessarily near the values in the 1930s.
Zemler: We have to look back through a lens of understanding and historical reflection. So where we see someone like Snow White and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, she embodies traits that were valued by some at the time, but may not be valued by us now. So it’s not very useful to judge the Disney Princesses or to look back in that sort of way. It’s better to think about how we want to portray characters on screen going forward. You can see that happening with princesses like Moana and other Disney characters like Raya from Raya and the Last Dragon, where there’s a little bit more inclusivity, there’s more diversity, there’s more of a sense of doing research about the actual culture that’s being represented on screen.
That research did happen on past films like on Mulan and Pocahontas—those certainly were researched and they went on research trips, but the degree of that research is much more significant now, which is helped by more diversity behind the scenes at Walt Disney Animation Studios. There’s a lot of those people that I interviewed in the book who talk about those goals that they have going forward for the characters, because they really understand that audiences want both to be able to see themselves on screen, but also to be able to look at the screen and see the world around them. And that is starting to happen more and more on film. Moana, who is the most recent official Disney Princess, is a really good example of where these characters can go forward. But we also can’t really know what our values are going to be in 10 years or what the issues are.
io9: Right, and that’s carried by the importance of having more inclusive creative team members, like chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios Jennifer Lee, who co-directed and co-wrote Frozen, and Niki Caro, who recently directed the live-action Mulan. It’s such a big deal to see women also tell these stories as the princess legacy continues to be reclaimed by the voices of who they represent.
Zemler: I think one of the things maybe not everyone realizes is that those early Disney Princesses were imagined and drawn by men. They were drawn by male animators. And even in the more recent years, like in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, they were drawn and imagined by men. Although I don’t know if everyone realizes that on Snow White, the women in the ink and paint department were also coloring a lot of the animation cells, which is kind of cool. So Snow White does have some women who worked behind the scenes on her, but it’s been rare.
And so I think that’s been a directive from Jennifer Lee as she’s come on board Walt Disney Animation Studios and talking to her. It sounds like it’s really important to her to be hiring women, to be hiring people who are of the background of the story that they’re telling and ensuring that more people are given opportunities behind the scenes, whether that’s women or people who generally don’t get those opportunities. And I think that’s really, really important. It’s great to see female directors telling female stories. There are many more Disney films forthcoming that will involve female storytellers. And I think it was included in the book—we weren’t asked to remove it by Disney so it must be true, that Greta Gerwig actually was one of the screenwriters on the upcoming reimagining of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which to me is very exciting.
io9: Touching on the subject of having each princess’ legacy handled by more women, I’m so excited to see the continuation of Tiana’s story from Princess and the Frog on her Disney Parks attraction, Tiana’s Bayou. What are your thoughts on seeing these stories go beyond their princess eras and into more of their lives as queens, like we’ve gotten to see in Frozen, even as we still get to see new princesses added to the line-up?
Zemler: It’s really important maybe for Disney fans to understand the distinctions between Disney Princesses and the Frozen Queens. This took me a minute when I came on board this book. It’s very particular. There are 12 Disney Princesses in the Disney Princess franchise. They are part of the franchise—not necessarily because they are royal but because they are the leaders of their own stories and because they embody specific traits, like courage and kindness and a sense of adventure. The Frozen Queens are their own franchise, which comprises Anna and Elsa, who are obviously Queens of Arendelle. So they are a separate franchise to the Disney Princesses but they’re sort of adjacent.
I’m not sure if Disney would take some of the Disney Princesses into their queen era because they are they are characterized as a princess. But that said—just so I’m saying that to clarify it, because I think people have this question a lot online—I think it’s really great to see the continuation of the stories, because something like The Princess and the Frog has come under some critique for the storyline that had Tiana as a frog for the majority of the film. I think some of these extensions of that world will allow us to get to be with human Tiana a lot more, and to get to understand who she is and see her in her world and in her life. And I’m really excited for more from from Moana, not just from her as a character because she’s amazing. I just found that world so fantastical and so interesting and imaginative, and you just never really expect the visuals that come in that movie. And I think we could just get so much more of that.
io9: Where the Disney Princesses a part of your first fandom, or just Disney in general? And did your love for this particular IP inform your career path in any way?
Zemler: Maybe my first fandom was My Little Pony, but my parents did give me access to Disney films from a really young age. I had all of them on VHS. I watched them all the time. And Ariel in particular was just my absolute favorite. I really worshiped at Ariel’s feet, and I used to ride around in the swimming pool, waving my hair back and forth like a mermaid. I loved her sense of rebellion and adventure. It really just spoke to me that she was just going to do whatever she wanted, no matter what the cost. So I think that having characters like that growing up, like her and Jasmine and Belle, certainly informed me. I think being immersed in film from a young age extended to me this idea that you could see these fantastical stories on screen, that you could become immersed in them. And there’s something really magical about that. It can’t be an accident that I ended up writing about film as a career. After all those years of watching movies, I don’t know if I can specifically be like, “That’s the reason,” but I think it could be.
Disney Princess: Beyond the Tiara is out September 20. Order it on the Quarto Group main site here and check out the full cover below!
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.