You may have been seeing the buzz lately over Disney’s induction of Merida into their pantheon of Princesses–and even more buzz about the make-over that went with that. It’s a fascinating and disturbing discussion (read more here).
It has me thinking about Disney women. And I think it’s doubly unfortunate that Disney has a tendency to focus on the pretty, sparkly princesses, and not on the girls’ other qualities and abilities–because there are awesome Disney women. Disney gets a fair amount of criticism in general for weak heroines, but there were already amazing Disney women before Merida–princesses and otherwise. Here are my favorites:
Belle from Beauty and the Beast – Sure, she’s a princess, but only in the last minute of the movie. Mostly, she’s an ordinary girl who loves to read and has big dreams. She doesn’t let society dictate what she should be interested in (since they think she’s strange for reading) or who she should be dating (refusing to marry the immensely popular Gaston). She sacrifices her freedom to rescue her father and stands up to the Beast when he bellows at her. She’s brave, intelligent, inquisitive and yes, she has a pretty yellow dress…but there’s a lot more going on than that.
Katie from Darby O’Gill and the Little People – Lest you think Disney has no positive female characters before recent years, I point you to a live-action example, Katie O’Gill, whose movie came out in 1959. She has immense force of will, there’s a clear sense that she’s running things in her family, and she’s not going to brook any nonsense from anyone, be it the local bully, her father, or the handsome Michael McBride (a very young Sean Connery, by the way). She’s not waiting around for a prince–when Michael asks her once if she gets lonely, she remarks that she keeps busy, and seems to be sincere. It’s not a perfect example because she doesn’t get to do much in her movie, but she has a strong personality and is a very long way from a sparkly, useless princess.
Chicha from The Emperor’s New Groove – Chicha, Pacha’s wife, is an absolute delight. For one thing, she’s a pregnant animated character (how often do you see that?) and more importantly, she’s clearly as smart and as capable as her husband (probably more so). To a certain extent, she’s stuck at home with the kids–but the villains come to call and Chicha swings into action. She doesn’t wind up kidnapped or need to be rescued. Instead, she becomes a participant in the efforts to foil the villains. Love it.
Dejah Thoris from John Carter – I’m not denying there’s some issues with this one…like how she gets kidnapped, or her distinctly scanty attire. But having read the original book, A Princess of Mars, I can assure you that they really tried to make her a stronger, more capable character. I mean, she gets to use a sword–and she’s a scientist! Big leap forward from the original source material.
Ellie from Up – Merida isn’t Pixar’s first amazing woman. We also have Ellie, who is adventurous, daring and immensely confident in herself. Even better, she marries a man who obviously loves those qualities in her. It’s true she was only in the movie for ten minutes, but it seems to be a near-universal opinion that those were the most powerful ten minutes of the movie. That’s a girl who’s having an impact.
It would be amazing if the debate around Merida sparks off some larger realizations for Disney. Enough with the Princesses marketing campaign. Yes, little girls like sparkles and pretty dresses and that’s fine, but Merida already has a sisterhood of Disney women who have qualities beyond their prettiness.
I think the problem is less the stories that are being told than the way the marketing campaign is handling them. I mean, besides the women above, there’s Mulan, who rode off to war and found confidence in herself; Pocahontas, who saved John Smith from execution; and Jasmine, who inspired her father to change the law in a way that gave women more rights. So I think it’s fair to give Disney credit for having some amazing women characters–and to hope that they’ll notice that fact!