In 2003, a dynamic singing group in the film, The Cheetah Girls sang an anthem, Cinderella, which shattered the traditional norms that young girls and women have been subjected to, not just in real life but also in several of the fairy tales that Disney brought to life. The lyrics ‘Don’t wanna depend on no one else, I’d rather rescue myself’ put things in perspective for the audience in more ways than one. The lyrics brought a terrific wave of change in how Disney portrayed its women in the following years. The women in Disney films, animated or otherwise, are not families in distress anymore; they’re more than how they look, greater than where they come from. The Walt Disney Company has expanded its horizons, adapted to change, and demonstrated representation’s real meaning by leading by example. While the tales are still wonderfully magical, they’re also humanlike and inspiring.
Gone are the times when a Cinderella would only feel validated if the shoe fit her. The Disney women now are self-assured, they get things done now, own who they are and aren’t weighed down by the standards of beauty and convention set for them. As the world celebrated Walt Disney Day today, we look back at the most empowering female characters that have gone above and beyond cantonal norms, representing characteristics that empower young girls and women which means to be independent, confident and in charge.
Empowering female Disney characters
In 2021, Disney released Raya and the Last Dragon, an animation-adventure film, which proved to be trailblazing in more ways than one. The film’s antagonist, Raya, was a South-East Asian warrior, one of Disney’s first attempts at bringing the South Asian community diversity to an international level on a full-fledged screen. Raya is anything but ordinary, she is a warrior, she speaks her mind, fiercely takes her own decisions, and is independent enough to fight her own battles. The film shows her journey, where she sets out in search of the Dragon, Sisu, in order to save her kingdom and reunite people. The film generated accolades not just for its storyline but for showcasing content that felt relatable for people.
The film Moana was released in 2016 and added a new princess of the same name to the world of Disney. However, this time, Moana wasn’t a regular princess. She was a representative of her people and picked up the weapons when she needed to save her kingdom. Unlike Raya, Moana too did not embark on a love story angle. Instead, the only angle in the film was the independent and courageous streak that she displayed. Another interesting factor was the kind of leadership Moana displayed, which is unlike Disney films where men have usually led kingdoms and fought for them, too. Moana’s self-reliance is a lesson for young girls watching Disney films – that they do not require a man to save them.
The popular film instalments The Incredibles (2004) and The Incredibles 2 (2018) introduced us to a character called Helen Parr, aka Elastigirl. While Disney has previously featured several mom characters, bringing forward Helen – the mother of the Parr family – was a different ballgame in the history of its superficial characters. Helen performs all her duties as a mother. While she’s loving, kind and caring, she is also fierce and super powerful at the same time and is ready to fight anyone or anything that causes hindrance to her children. The scene of a bomb explosion in the film, where Helen comes out as superhuman wearing her cape suit is spellbinding. The second instalment of the film is where her superpowers are displayed to much effect and she wins over the audience with her heroic endeavours.
The film Brave which was released in 2012, gave us another empowered character in the form of Merida. Merida was a Scottish princess who excelled in archery, was independent in her thoughts and actions and defied all social norms that required her to behave like a regular princess. While her mother desired for her to follow all the etiquette that the title required, Merida had her break-free moment early on and instead preferred horse riding and swordplay. The world of Disney’s one of the most inspiring characters for young girls to look up to is Merida. Merida never wanted marriage, she instead focussed on budding her skills and contributing to the world.
It’s interesting to go back to the time, a time when Disney films, although extremely loved, still had a straight-headed concept of how prices were raised, rescued and married off. However, the 1998 release Mulan challenged this and more. It’s, in fact, surprising to see that Disney did attempt to make a film as different as this one back then, and while it did not get very popular back then, it certainly works as a charm now. Mulan is the torch bearer of all empowered Disney characters in a way. The strength, intelligence and loyalty her character displayed were above par, and her willingness to go beyond everything and help her father through his tough times was inspiring. On a quest to save her father, Mulan joined the army disguised as a man and proved to the world that she was the only warrior who could save the country. Mulan shows in a way that understanding woman is never a good idea, and she serves as a true example for young girls to take whatever steps necessary to rise in a world where the stakes are against them.
The film Princess and the Frog released in 2010, introduced us to the character Tiana, a girl who wasn’t born a royal but became one. Tiana faced hardships, worked odd jobs and struggled to find success. However, she did not give up her integrity and worked independently, a trait that serves as great teaching for young kids watching. A point in time when Tiana refused a Prince’s proposal to pursue her dreams is the highlight f the film. Another interesting highlight is the black representation in the film. The Black kids today do not have to look far and beyond to feel relatable, the films are slowly doing that, and bringing them together to feel a part of the narrative.
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