With definitions from dictionary.com
1.an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment
2. the object, state, or result desired or sought after
3. desire for work or activity; energy
verb (used with object)
4. to seek after earnestly; aspire to.
Although Ambition has a somewhat tainted original meaning (that is: a negative meaning back in the 14th century) there is nothing technically negative about the modern definition. Originally to be ambitious was to be “going around to canvass for office,” – from 14th century Latin, ambitiosus. It was only in early use that Ambition was grouped with Pride and Vainglory. (For the record, the latter of those two is a 12th century word and is now practically archaic.)
Whatever its origins, ambition now means an earnest desire for achievement or distinction and willingness to strive for it or to aspire to something. In other words: ambitious people know what they want to achieve in life and go after it. Which, when you stop and think about it, actually means that most characters labelled as ambitious are nothing of the sort.
House Slytherin of the Harry Potter Franchise is a very good example of a group of characters who are labelled as “ambitious” but never actually are. All of those old, noble houses (Malfoy, Black, etc)? They cannot be ambitious because they already have what the ambitious person seeks: they already are (in)famous, powerful, and wealthy. True, “honour” – the other major ambition the dictionary lists – is something they might lack, but they aren’t shown seeking honour either. As for most of the Slytherin students shown in the books? They seem quite sure they already have everything, that they don’t need to better themselves, and that they are just going to keep doing what their family does. In other words: unless the Sorting Hat was sorting one-fourth of the students on opposite-day rules, Salazar Slytherin (and JKR) did not actually understand what ambition is. Wanting to follow in the family business is a very rare ambition. Most truly ambitious people would rather strike out on their own and make a name for themselves. See, “achievements” and “distinctions” – the two things which ambition is to desire – are personal goals. They are not group or family oriented. Ambitious people do not want to be “hey, aren’t you part of the X family?” they want to be “OMG YOU’RE [AMBITIOUS PERSON’S NAME]!”
Okay, so what about Voldemort? Obviously he’s ambitious, right? He wants to take over the world? Yeah, but does he? Sure that’s what he says he wants, but throughout the main story his only dedicated goal is “Kill Harry Potter”. If he was truly ambitious and his goal was “take over the world” he wouldn’t waste so much time and so many convoluted plots on something which should have been secondary. You might argue that it was because he was trying to stay alive. However, either his goal was take over the world or it was become immortal, but not both. Ambitious people, when the cards are down, have their desires ranked. This means that something they’d also like will, if they have to make the choice, be put aside if getting it means making their main goal harder to reach. Thus “piss a lot of people off by taking over the world” and “live forever” should be diametrically opposite goals. Oh, and here’s the other thing: goals aren’t the same as ambitions. “Lose weight” is a goal, but it’s not an ambition. “Be a movie star” is more an ambition than a goal (goals are also more specific).
Lastly, not everyone who tries to take over the world is ambitious. This goes back to what I said earlier about how ambition is a personal goal. Some people who try to take over the world – or just a country – are not doing it for themselves. In fact, most of the people who give enough shits to actually bother trying for any sort of conquest are doing it because they care about other people. Unless they’re like Alexander the Great – glory-hounds who run from place to place conquering, leave other people to run things, and whose conquests fall from their grasp almost as soon as they leave because they have no long term plans (which, again, would rule out their being ambitious because ambitious is all about having long term plans) – chances are they’re taking over because they think the state of things must be fixed “for the greater good”. Augustus Caesar is often viewed negatively for abolishing democracy and starting the Roman Empire (untrue, he did place his autocracy over – veto right – the senate, but he never disbanded them) but he took power from the senate and took control because the senate was a completely corrupt career-politician hotbed of wasted taxpayer money, vice, petty squabbles and aristocratic arrogance that couldn’t figure out how to lead a horse, let alone get it to water. Augustus took over because the people who were supposed to be ruling weren’t. They were enjoying the wealth and power that came from having the ruler-ship position, but they weren’t actually ruling. Caesar Augustus did not take power for himself, and thus was not ambitious, and was a good ruler – while the emperors who followed him, and who inherited the position rather than having to strive for it (again, thus not ambitious) thought about their own pleasures and couldn’t rule for shit (with a few exceptions *cough*Marcus Aurelius*cough*). So even if “Take over the world” was Voldemort’s primary goal, it is not by definition an ambition. Of course, Voldemort is not like Augustus Caesar. Voldemort has more in common with Hitler and his fictional analogue Grindelwald – who believed in his slogan “For The Greater Good” and who was therefore not ambitious. Which makes the question “Did Voldemort believe his blood-purity hype?” because if he did: he wasn’t ambitious.
And this begs the question: If Slytherins – the pop-cultural go-to example for ambitious people – aren’t ambitious, then who is?
I kid you not. Let’s take a look at that definition again.
- an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment
- the object, state, or result desired or sought after
- desire for work or activity; energy
verb (used with object)
- to seek after earnestly; aspire to.
“As power, honor, fame, or wealth” is just a list of examples, not a complete list of forms ambition can take. Wanting to be loved and wanting to be happy are also ambitions. Ambition can be “the desire for work or activity” – which sounds distinctly Hufflepuff – and have you ever heard of a Disney Princess who wasn’t painfully “earnest”? Moreover, as ambition can thus be “to aspire to honour” have you ever heard of a non-heroic character who strove for that? Honour (however you want to spell it) is a hero-trait in fiction.
So why Disney Princesses? Let’s go over them one by one, shall we?
Snow White: Main songs? I’m Wishing and Someday My Prince Will Come. Snow’s been treated like a servant all her life and no one – not even the nobility who ought to be up in arms about it, nor the royalty of whichever kingdom her mother’s family rule – has done anything about it. But does Snow just sing about finding someone to love? No. She sings about waiting for her Prince. Snow is in rags and has no reason to believe her born social status counts for shit anymore, she’s been run out of her kingdom and being recognised is a death sentence, but she damn well refuses to give up on the “Prince” part of her life-plans. Furthermore, before she meets her prince she isn’t shown doing much to achieve her ambitions, except singing into a wishing well – which is a silly and childish thing to do. Except for two things: as a fourteen year old she was totally still a child and she clearly believed that it would really work. Which, given that her true love immediately appeared, which is way too much of a coincidence to have been an accident (seriously, foreign prince rides right by local capital castle, which the royal family is currently inhabiting, and no one fucking notices?) it’s entirely possible that Snow was 100% right about that wishing well, in which case she was going after her desires. That’s Ambition.
Cinderella: Here’s an interesting line from Cinderella’s song So This is Love “The key to all heaven is mine”. Ambitious people about themselves firstly – I want, I have, etc – which makes this line rather telling. She’s not in heaven, the key to heaven is hers. Now, you might argue this can’t be true because Cinderella is not selfish – she is kind and giving and helpful – but selfishness and kindness are not mutually exclusive. Likewise, ruthlessness and selfishness are not mutually inclusive. Ambition is a selfish thing, in that it puts the self first, but ambitious people are not automatically unkind, or unhelpful. In fact, people who are determined to achieve their dreams (ahem, “Whatever you wish for, you keep/Have faith in your dreams and someday/Your rainbow will come smiling through”) are more likely to help others to achieve theirs because they know how much that would mean to them. And because most of the time ambitious people aren’t idiots. Ever heard the term “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar”? Well, apart from the fact that real vinegar catches more flies than real honey, what the metaphor means is that – generally speaking – stomping all over people doesn’t get you as far as being nice to them. Furthermore, wanting and going after nice things or achievements for yourself in no way obliges you to turn on everyone else. Ambitious people only view others as a problem when those others are standing between them and their goal. Cinderella, who has grown up in an abusive household and likely doesn’t have the emotional ability to save herself by walking out the door, is kind to those around her and it works in her benefit. Sure, she goes to tears after her dress and dreams are torn to shreds, but that doesn’t indicate a lack of ambition. Someone who didn’t have goals or ambition wouldn’t have been anywhere near as distressed to have their dream crushed right when they thought they were going to make it. Cinderella could not have achieved her happy ending on her own, but nowhere in the definition of ambition is that a requirement. She tried, earnestly, to go after her dreams. That’s ambition.
Sleeping Beauty: Okay, I got nothing. But in fairness, she does spend most of the movie named after her ASLEEP.
Ariel: Do I really need to spell this one out? Mer-girl wants to achieve being human (she met Eric AFTER becoming obsessed with humanity, remember?). Mer-girl sings entire song about how damn much she wants to be human – to be Part of Your World – and Mer-girl signs deal with first person to make that an option for her, after being explicitly forbidden to keep thinking about humans by the autocratic ruler of her country. That’s ambition. Sure, mer-girl absolutely fails at guile, but guile and ambition are not mutually inclusive.
Belle: Ambition and the desire for adventure (or bravery or courage or whatever you want to call it) are not mutually exclusive, no matter what Harry Potter might have implied. Belle’s introductory song – which is also the first time we see her – is about how she wants to get out of this “poor, provincial town” (and how the townsfolk think she’s weird). Allow me to repeat that with clarity: within moments of being introduced to her, Belle complains that the town she lives in is “poor” (ambition for wealth) and “provincial” (ambition for social standing). And if you need further proof of that, here’s a bit from the reprise of That Belle: “Not me, no way/I guarantee it/ I want much more than this provincial life! I want adventure in the great wide somewhere! I want it more than I can tell. And for once it might be grand/To have someone understand/ I want so much more than they’ve got planned…” Ambition is all about “I want”. And sure, you might say that Belle gives up her ambitions for her father – but Belle’s an avid reader: she, of all people, would know that being offered the chance to switch places with a prisoner in an enchanted castle is a standard beginning for adventures. You know, the thing she wants? That’s ambition.
Jasmine: Well, she wants to see the world beyond the palace and sneaks out in order to do it, but that’s not really all that ambitious. Of course, that’s because Jasmine – like Sleeping Beauty – isn’t really the main character of Aladdin. Aladdin himself though? Well, the whole wishing to become a prince thing really says it all. Why? Because it would have been far easier – no need to pretend to not be a street rat – if Aladdin had wished for the Genie to change the laws so that he could win the princess’ hand as himself. Aladdin immediately viewed his social status as what needed to be changed. Not to mention the cut song Proud of Your Boy, which was all about how he wanted to make his mother proud – her pride was the achievement he earnestly sought.
Mulan: Although it becomes secondary to the goal of keeping her father from going to war and dying, Mulan starts off with the ambition to meet the social standards of her era so that she can make her family proud. Or, rather, she starts with the ambition to make her family proud and goes about it by trying – and failing – to meet social standards, which turns out to have been the wrong way to go about it. The distinction she earnestly seeks – and then sings about being unable to fulfil – is to be “the perfect daughter”. That’s ambitious. Also, ambitious people are not, by definition, only ambitious if they go about seeking their aspirations the right way. Sometimes they think they’re doing it right and aren’t.
Pocahontas: Has a whole song about not being sure what she wants out of life. Pass. Not ambitious. Sure, there’s “prevent a war” but that’s more a goal than an ambition. Ambitions – desire to achieve – are by definition construction (make something new, attain something new) not destructive or neutralising (prevent war – which preserves an existent status quo).
Tiana: Do I really have to explain this one? Miss Works-Herself-To-The-Bone-Even-When-Turned-Into-A-Frog-To-Get-The-Restaurant-She’s-Wanted-Since-She-Was-a-Toddler basically oozes ambition. (Especially if you look at what she imagines for her restaurant – it’s at least five-star – that girl doesn’t just want to have a restaurant, she wants a rich restaurant for fashionable people. She wants to move up in social class/wealth and fame and she wants to prove to the world how good she is at what she does.) Here’s where Potter fans tend to confuse truly ambitious people with the idea that ambition (Slytherin) and hard work (Hufflepuff) are mutually exclusive. But here’s the thing: by definition ambitious people are willing to EARNESTLY GO AFTER WHAT THEY WANT. Earnest, incidentally, means “serious in intention, purpose, or effort; sincerely zealous” as well as “showing depth and sincerity of feeling” and “seriously important; demanding or receiving serious attention”. If you are ambitious you are BY DEFINITION hard working …in order to get what you want. This means, by the way, that all the “ambitious” characters in fiction who will ruthlessly cheat, steal, and lie to get to the top? …Aren’t really ambitious. Why? Because they aren’t earnestly going after their aspirations. Hufflepuffs are more ambitious than Slytherins.
Rapunzel: Is probably more goal-oriented than ambition-oriented, given that “see the lights” is more of a one-time information gathering quest than a self-improvement-based aspiration. Unless her ambition is “happiness” in which case she might count. Nevertheless, the girls songs are primarily about feeling unfulfilled that she hasn’t achieved anything (When Will My Life Begin) and what she wants out of life (I Have A Dream). So while she’s not as ambitious as some in this list, she still counts.
Merida: Wants the power to make her own life choices. She also wants her mother to understand her, but that’s not an ambition, it’s a desire or goal.
Elsa and Anna: Elsa’s not an ambitious character. Her desire to get her powers under control is motivated by fear and necessity. Anna’s ambitions, on the other hand, drive much of the story. The love of her sister is the achievement she mostly seeks – which might not seem like much of an achievement, until you realise that she spent her childhood talking to a closed door out of the desire to be noticed by the one she loved. She also spent much of her time completely isolated, which makes her aim a sort of narrow form of ambition for fame – the desire for fame, after all, is the desire to be notices and acknowledged as special …which is exactly what Anna is trying to get out of the people whose opinions she actually cares about. To be loved is, in a way, to be famous to a single person. Fame is the love – in a shallower form – of the distant people.
In closing: Ambition is not mutually exclusive with kindness, hard work, generosity, and honesty. Ambitious people do not have to be, by definition, guileful, liars, ruthless, or selfish to the detriment of others. The desire to take over the world is only ambition if done for the sake of the self rather than in order to make the world a better place – which is the more common reason people try, whether or not their beliefs ultimately prove destructive when viewed from outside. The only things ambition is mutually exclusive with are aimlessness and laziness. People who cheat their way to the top are not ambitious because they do not go after their aspirations earnestly. There is nothing inherently evil about knowing what you want out of life and going for it.
So. There you have it. Disney Princesses are more ambitious than Slytherins.