I love Disney. Can you tell?
Despite its flaws as a company and an artistic entity, Disney has just enough redeeming qualities to keep us coming back. It has pioneered animation ever since its inception, creating beautiful, moving stories based on fairytales, folk stories, and literature, and it has also utilized and inspired new technology, such as fantasound in the 1940’s.
Walt Disney has built an empire out of his versions of stories and characters, whether you love them, hate them, or love to hate them, and it’s impossible to deny the influence his creations have had on many of our childhoods. Men have the overall advantage in society, to put it mildly, and so many prominent female figures in the media become role models to the growing women of the future, for better or worse. As I’ve said in the past, many people like to focus on the negative impact of Disney’s views and portrayals of women, but by now, you know me. With some exceptions, I like to be a bit more fair-minded, and observe how far the company has come in its near-decade of existence.
As a once-girl-now-woman, I’d like to share with you my top 5 favorite female Disney characters. They can be characters that I have liked the most or ones that have influenced me and my worldview in these 20 or so short years of life, but one thing is for sure: they are all awesome women in my mind. They practically need no introduction.
While she still gets the honor of breaking into my top 5, Merida ranks the lowest for me because of her youthful obnoxiousness. She has many admirable traits, one of which is wanting to go against the prim-and-proper future that her mother has planned out for her, but she’s somewhere between Ariel and Aurora when it comes to emotional and mental maturity. She wants what she wants and is willing to do stupid things to get it, barely questioning her motivations or the people offering her easy solutions at all.
I’m not saying she’s not relatable, because she definitely is. She wouldn’t be on this list if I didn’t seriously relate to her. It’s just that some of her antics are like watching a kid throw a tantrum. They might have a good reason for being upset, but it can still be an annoying way to try and resolve the problem.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just because I felt the need to grow up more quickly than the kids around me. Immature characters need something more for me to really, deeply admire them, and while Merida is good, she’s not the best I’ve seen. Her movie was also a lot smaller scale than what many people were expecting from the trailers, so while it’s not a bad coming-of-age, mother-and-daughter-understanding narrative, it’s also not as epic and engaging as most Disney and Pixar fare.
But regardless, Merida is rebellious and wild, much like her stunning CG hair. I love her design, and as someone with Scottish heritage, it’s nice to see and hear some Scottish influence gracing the mainstream silver screen. Merida also likes what one might traditionally described as “boy things,” and is very proficient as a rider and an archer. It’s refreshing to see that, by the end of her movie, she doesn’t have to compromise her hobbies or her tomboy-ish nature as part of the growing-up process. She teaches her strict mother a lesson while learning an important one of her own: communication and understanding are what grow relationships, not trying to force one another to change.
Merida is clearly a “girl” more than she is a “woman,” and that’s okay. It works for her story and character arc, and at the end of the day, that’s all I really ask. I just like to see some more growth into womanhood, and what that means.
Belle is kick-ass, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. She stands up to a beast twice her size and doesn’t take any of his childish nonsense. She’s beautiful, but she is neither shy nor jerky about it. She reads in a time when women aren’t expected to, and does so openly and without apology. She sees Gaston’s rapey swagger and raises him a one-way, face-first trip to the mud.
Is Belle a bit too perfect? It’s certainly possible, but she’s also the kind of person many of us wish we could be, without appearing too preachy as a role model (see Cinderella). She’s selfless, gorgeous, quirky, brave, snarky, and pretty confident in her own skin. She loves her family and would do anything for them, even if it means sacrificing her own happiness. She also seeks adventure and excitement in a life of perceived drudgery and stigmatization. So while she may be a bit too reasonable and too self-actualized from the beginning of the story, she is still very relatable and likeable.
As mentioned before, I also love her voice acting and reflexive expressions. She shows a lot of her character through those attributes alone.
Beauty and the Beast is less of a story about Belle’s growth and more about the growth of the Beast, through her eyes. Yes, she learns to love someone she once feared and despised, but she ultimately teaches her prince more than he taught her. You could argue that she is feminist improvement of Cinderella, the woobie who exists to laud the values of Christian martyrdom and patience, by being smarter, more outspoken, and more assertive about her boundaries. And while I do think that Cinderella gets more criticism than she deserves, when looking at the intent of Mr. Disney, I wouldn’t entirely disagree with this idea. My reading of that story is a more modern take, and I admit that.
But I digress.
On a more self-serving note, Belle is also the first brunet princess. Represent, brown-haired ladies!
Moana is a small-island girl who longs for adventure on the high seas. As someone who has always loved the ocean, I found a kindred spirit in her right away.
Moana is young and uncertain, but reasonably so, given her upbringing. She has a good sense of duty and family, and though her passion is not encouraged by her parents (out of fear for her safety), she bonds with her grandmother over their mutual fascination with the sea, which kind of bridges the two worlds she inhabits. She struggles with her desire to sail and her desire to lead her people, as she sees the two options as mutually exclusive. A good chief must think of her people and do all that she can to help them, and while her parents have taught her the traditional way to be a chief, and have made good points about the dangers of the ocean, her destiny is to go there, and the fact that they have shielded her from the outside world has not adequately prepared her for what she must do.
This story may resonate particularly well with Millennials, many of whom feel that they were not properly prepared for the demands and stresses of the “adult world.”
Moana finds an unlikely teacher in Maui, the cocky but secretly scarred demi-god who is responsible for the problems that threaten to engulf her island. She learns a great deal from him while also teaching him what it truly means to be a hero of man…and woman. Moana is a force of unyielding love and forgiveness, even in the face of her own self-doubt; she shows Maui and even Te Ka that they don’t have to be defined by their past and the people who have hurt them. She also finds joy and even strength in the discovery and embracing of her heritage, especially at the start of the film.
She’s just a good, good character. I’m not sure what more I can say about her that isn’t just dancing around that main point.
Disney’s first fighting princess, and to quote Lindsay Ellis, “the only princess with a body count.”
But seriously, Mulan is awesome. Her movie, while simplifying a lot about Chinese culture, is very feminist and even queer. Mulan disguises herself as a man in order to join the Chinese army in place of her ailing father, and while she initially struggles to adapt, she finds more freedom and satisfaction than she ever had in the restrictive roles of “woman” and “daughter.” Mulan finds strengths that she never knew she had and as a result, she saves her country almost single-handedly. It is so satisfying to see her rewarded, and to see the people who initially dismissed her enlightened or receiving comeuppance for their stubborn clinging to the past.
Her movie is by no means perfect or free of problematic elements, much like many Disney movies. As I said, Mickey Mouse-ifying Chinese culture or just using it as an exotic backdrop is definitely patronizing and annoying. But at the same time, you might call it a crucial step in Disney’s learning process, which has resulted in more culturally-respectful movies like Moana. And however meager it may seem, it does count as Chinese representation in a mainstream, well-liked medium, which I think makes it overall a positive step forward despite its flaws.
Mulan shares many of the traits of women on this list. She loves her family, but goes against them to follow what she knows is right. She is smart when her confidence is bolstered, and she finds unconventional solutions to problems, like defeating the entire Hun army with a well-timed avalanche. Mulan finds herself by going against the grain and doing what was previously considered “man’s work,” but unlike Merida, she finds more of a balance between the feminine and masculine aspects of her life. While we don’t get too deep into her life prior to becoming a soldier, we can assume that she liked certain aspects of womanhood. Just not the whole “get auctioned off to the highest bidder and be his submissive bride and breedmule for life” thing. She clearly isn’t wild about that, on top of not being very good at it.
Mulan doesn’t fit into either the male or female world perfectly, either by Western or Eastern standards. She excels in the in-between, and that is what people like about her.
The only really disappointing thing she does is turn down a position on the Emperor’s council, but it might be somewhat unfair to expect her to be completely selfless and keep pushing the boundaries for Chinese women everywhere. She is only one person, after all, and the entire impetus of her story is the desire to keep her family together. It makes sense that she would want to appreciate the fruits of her labor in person.
Mulan is a “girl power” character, but her praise is by no means cheap or unearned. Sometimes that phrase is used as a derogative, accompanied by an eye roll or a sneer, but those people – let’s face it, many of them are men – are usually less concerned about balanced female representation than they are threatened by any kind of social politics “invading their movies.” They seemingly ignore how many movies that they love have explicit or implicit political themes, and simply bash on increased diversity as being only “for diversity’s sake.” See the new Star Wars trilogy as an example of this.
At times Mulan can come across as a bit bland, but her movie is fun and funny and full of likeable characters, which makes up for that in my humble opinion. While it’s not my favorite, I come back to Mulan probably more than any other Disney movie. It brings me joy, and a large part of that is due to Mulan herself. She’s a quiet badass, changing the world one slaughtered army at a time.
She may not be an official Disney Princess, but I’m counting her, goddamn it!
Esmeralda is my favorite female Disney character, and I find her movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, to be criminally underrated. While it deviates heavily from the book and has some cringe-worthy “comedic” bits, it also contains adult themes that Disney has never tackled before, or ones that were only lightly touched-upon in the past. Lust, religion, xenophobia, genocide, parental abuse; these and many more appear very blatantly in Hunchback, making it a very dark and powerful story about human nature. The score and the art design are also very striking, making the story all the more memorable in Disney’s arguably homogenous lineup.
The movie has some unfortunate depictions of the gypsies as thieves and murders, but some of it could be accepted as them needing to protect themselves and their people from Frollo’s spies. Many people also complain that Esmeralda is overly-sexualized and how this is a harmful stereotype for many female minorities, but again, problematic elements do not necessarily cancel out good characters. Esmeralda is sexualized in part because Frollo objectifies her, and while he never learns to see her as a person, Quasimodo does.
As a person, Esmeralda is funny as hell, particularly in her fight with Phoebus and the latter half of the Festival of Fools. She’s witty and snarky when the moment calls for it, but she’s also proactive as a heroine; she is fiercely defensive of her people, demanding without apology that they be treated just like everyone else. While she does gasp at Quasimodo at first, she is quick to befriend him, showing that her convictions are strong and she is truly a kind, understanding person. She really does believe in freedom and equality for all people, and she can and will fight for it.
Esmeralda, much like Belle, is a self-actualized character from the get-go; she knows who she is and what she’s about without needing to learn or grow very much. What makes her compelling, however, is her bravery in facing the challenges of her people and of the time. She fights back against soldiers who try to steal her hard-earned money. She stops Quasimodo’s humiliation at the festival and stands up to Frollo, not knowing the depth of Frollo’s madness and his growing lust for her. Esmeralda risks her own safety for what is right, despite her fear, and though she lives in such a cruel world, she is still kind and forgiving to those who prove that they deserve it. Adversity sucks, but seeing such a good character arise in those circumstances is all the more admirable.
And while she does need to be rescued, Esmeralda is not a traditional helpless damsel. Her plight makes sense and she resists as much as she is able.
Not to play into her criticism, but Esmeralda is also gorgeous. I’d be lying if I said she didn’t make me question a few things as a child. One physical thing of note is her piercing green eyes. In the past, green eyes were thought to be a sign of evil, and many of Disney’s early villains do possess that feature. It just goes to subvert what Frollo and society say about Esmeralda, namely that she is wicked and deceitful. She is exactly who she presents herself to be, unlike Frollo, who hides his sinister desires and motives behind the mantle of God and His will.
So that is my list. Do you agree? Disagree? Who are your favorite Disney women?