I recently came across this ranking of Disney princesses in terms of how feminist they are. It actually clarified something for me about what bothers me whenever one comes across discussions of whether female protagonists are 'feminist'. The ranking given is:
(10) Aurora (Sleeping Beauty)
(9) Snow White (Snow White)
(8) Cinderella (Cinderella)
(7) Ariel (The Little Mermaid)
(6) Belle (Beauty and the Beast)
(5) Jasmine (Aladdin)
(4) Rapunzel (Tangled)
(3) Tiana (The Princess and the Frog)
(2) Pocahontas (Pocahontas)
(1) Mulan (Mulan)
It's very noticeable that, except for Rapunzel, this is chronological order. But the thing that struck me most was that the rationale for each place heavily depends on defining each character in terms of what happens to her. This is the whole reason, for instance, why Belle is so absurdly low on the list. The author notes that Belle is usually considered the most 'feminist' Disney princess, and then goes on to reject this by listing what happens to her in the movie -- she "voluntarily makes herself a prisoner" and "falls for a domineering man, because she thinks she can change him". What's left out are all the obvious reasons that explain why Belle is usually seen as Disney's most feminist female protagonist: she's the one whose character is least defined by, and thus least at the mercy of, other people, she stands up for herself the entire movie, she doesn't wait passively in the face of her problems but actively sets out to solve them, and (what is in its own way perhaps most important) she does what she thinks is right and is fairly consistently right because of it. Of all the Disney princesses, Belle is the one who is most consistently an agent in her own right. We see this with the supposed reasons why she gets her low ranking. She "voluntarily makes herself a prisoner" -- yes, by courageously negotiating for her father's release so that she can save his life. She "falls for a domineering man, because she thinks she can change him" -- no, because she falls for the man only when she has already changed him by refusing to be intimidated by him and insisting that he act like a civilized person, and he does.
The problem with this conception of a 'feminist protagonist' is that it defines 'feminist protagonist' as an entirely external status -- it's an approval the heroine gets solely to the extent that she's a good girl who makes sure she only ends up in the right kind of situation. One sign of this in the article is how often marriage comes up as a reason for downgrading the protagonist's status as feminist: marriage is a bad thing to want and a worse thing to achieve. There's no sense here that how strong a female character is could possibly depend on her: what makes a protagonist a 'feminist' protagonist or not is how she happens to fit or not into a man's world. This is perverse in the extreme.
Much the same thing can be said about 'feminist' antagonists, although I find it interesting that people don't talk about them as much. Aurora in Sleeping Beauty is a fairly passive character, but what often goes unremarked is that Prince Phillip is also quite passive, because the movie is structured as an elaborate indirect battle between Maleficent and the Three Good Fairies, and Aurora and Phillip are merely the pieces on the board. Maleficent uses Aurora as an instrument of revenge, and the Three Good Fairies bring Maleficent down by weakening Maleficent's curse and rasing Phillip up as an instrument of restoration. For all practical purposes the movie is a war between goddesses; like the ancient Olympians, who could not overturn the set will of an opposing god, neither Maleficent nor the Three Good Fairies can simply undo the other side's moves, and therefore must work around them. And the result is that the thing people really remember about Sleeping Beauty is neither Aurora nor Phillip but Maleficent, who is arguably still Disney's single best villain. Maleficent is the villain whose evil is least cartoonish and least derivative, and therefore darkest, and therefore least in need of any explanation in terms of any external factors. There's an increasing tendency to try to give psychological explanations to wicked queens in modern re-tellings of fairy tales -- in the recent Snow White and the Huntsman, for instance, Queen Ravenna's behavior is explained as a sort of lifelong retaliation against her kidnapping (and possible rape) as a young girl. In other words, she is a function of what was done to her. It is intended to humanize her, but contrary to the intention it dehumanizes her, robbing her of her own responsibility, the resolute wickedness that is her own most fascinating literary feature, and gives it to a man. It is impossible to imagine Maleficent, Mistress of All Evil, who wields the powers of Hell, ever being reducible to an output from a patriarchal input. She is a fairy-tale Lucifer, a beautiful and intelligent creature full of pride and glory who is evil because that is what she chooses to be, end of story. She is defined not by others, and certainly not by any men, but solely by her own character and choices. And she is an impressive villain because of it, standing out as distinctively memorable in a field full of stereotypes because of it. She is wicked in her own right.