In the past few years, there has been many debates and articles about how the female Disney characters are portrayed in a sexist way. While I do agree that there are many sexist attributions that are shown in the Disney movies, there are also many cases in which these Disney icons show women empowerment. Here are some of the characters and how their story can motivate and empower women around the world.
These are not in any specific order.
Merida from Brave (2012)
Merida is the brave and outgoing daughter of a Scottish king and queen who wanted to break the kingdom’s tradition and follow her own heart, instead of being forcibly married to a prince in order to take the throne as the next queen. Her mother, the present Queen in the movie, disagrees with her and tells her that a woman needs to act “proper” and in a “pristine” way. This causes a major dispute between the two and tears the bond that they shared (I’m not going to go into more details because it’ll spoil the movie for people who have not seen it). In my opinion, Merida to be one of the most underrated princesses of all time. Many people talk about how Moana is the first Disney princess who does not have a love interest, when in reality, Merida is the first. This movie was a story entirely about the bond between a mother and a daughter and showed that a woman can be and is independent, strong, and intelligent. It also showed that a woman does not need to get married immediately and can do as she likes to make herself happy. Overall, this movie empowers young girls to chase after their dreams and to break traditions that hold them down.
Esmerelda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
I’m going to start off by saying that this is one of my favorite Disney movies of all time. Esmerelda is a Romani woman who was a dancer and fortune-teller that belonged to a discriminated group referred to as the “gypsies.” Since the beginning of the movie, she is looked down upon because of her social status, was often scraping for food and was chased after guards for her humanitarian movements. Throughout the entire movie, she was known to be a bold woman who saved herself and the others around her. In most Disney movies, the male love interest is known for saving the woman, but in this movie, there was a balance between the couple. Both of them helped each other equally, and there were many moments in which Esmerelda had saved her significant other.
In addition, this movie covers many social issues that are not usually discussed in children movies. The antagonist of the film, Claude Frollo, was a religious Parisian justice minister who was known for taking advantage of his political power and was the caretaker of Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer of the Notre Dame cathedral who was locked up in the church by Frollo because he was told that he was “too ugly” for people to know who he was. Frollo despised the gypsies and spent his entire life trying to eradicate them (which is also how Quasimodo ended up being raised by him rather than his mother who was a gypsy). He justifies that all the inhumane actions he has committed were due to his loyalty to God. Not only has he degraded Quasimodo, but he also became attracted to Esmerelda because of her beauty, even though he claimed to be a celibate. He blames Esmerelda and states that his lust towards her is due to her non-existent witchcraft. Frollo also tries to force her to have a non-consensual sexual relationship with him even though she is a minor.
Wow. Talk about a lot of controversial topics for a kids movie. This movie not only brings awareness to topics that were not openly discussed back then, but also promotes empowerment for young girls and women to take a stance in what they believe in and to have courage even when facing the toughest times.
Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Tiana is the first African-American princess to be portrayed in Disney and is known for her strong will and hard work. Before her father’s death, he told her that she could make her hopes and ambitions come true with hard- work and dedication, which leads her to work many hours as a waitress to save money and in order to follow her dream of opening her own restaurant. Throughout the movie, she is told that she is not capable of doing such things and that a woman like her should know when to quit and move on. In the beginning, the film clearly shows how women are looked down upon and that they are treated to be less than men, but in the duration of the movie, it portrays a central theme that women and men are equal and that they can reach their potential with hard-work. While there is a love interest in this movie, it was more of a way to show that Tiana is still independent with or without her significant other. She proves that she does not back away from a fight and that her strong-will/patience is something to be complimented. Even being turned in to a frog doesn’t stop Tiana from going after her goals. This is truly a woman everyone should look up to!
Megara (Meg) from Hercules (1997)
Meg is known to be one of the first feminist icons in Disney and is appreciated for her independence, intelligence, and witty nature. When meeting Hercules for the first time, he had asked her if she was a damsel in distress. She stated back in a clever way saying, “I’m a damsel, I’m in distress, I can handle this.” This made everyone watching the movie think about this line in a different way since this saying was always used as a way to show that a man has to protect a woman. She is known to be the queen of sass and also has said some of the most iconic feminist lines such as “Well, you know how men are. They think ‘No’ means ‘Yes’ and ‘Get lost’ means ‘Take me, I’m yours.” This has been interpreted in many ways, the most common being the hatred for rape culture (the concept of rape being normalized in society). In addition to all of this, Meg is the one who ends up saving Hercules, rather than the other way around. She tossed herself in front of a column that would have crushed Hercules and ended up being the real hero (or heroine) of the story. She is definitely one of the most underrated feminist role models!