I have often heard people complain that Disney films gave them unrealistic expectations about life and love. While I share in their disappointment of the in-existence of fairy godmothers, I would heavily argue that there are some Disney films that teach deeply important lessons about real life. Moreso, I believe that certain “Disney princesses” are some of the best role models that a young girl can have (or, if you are me, that a 25-year-old girl can have!).
Here is a tribute to the women of Disney whose strength, courage, spirit, compassion and confidence have the ability to empower their female viewers with their stories for years to come.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996
Esmeralda, a gypsy who puts bread on the table by dancing in the streets, shines as a heroine in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. While her beauty and talent catch the attention of the crowd and the lust of the villainous Lord Frollo, what makes Esmeralda stand out in this story is her fight for justice.
When she saw Quasimodo being mistreated after being named the King of Fools, she fearlessly stood up for him against an entire crowd and defied the order of Lord Frollo to step down. “You speak of justice yet you are so cruel to those who are in need of your help,” she yelled before setting Quasimodo free.
Being a woman in her time gave her very little power. Being a gypsy gave her even less. And yet, she never hesitated to stand up for others who were mistreated, even if they were different from her. The Hunchback of Notre Dame shows girls that they don’t have to be a certain gender or have a certain social status to stand up and fight for what they believe in. They need only need to speak up.
The Princess and the Frog, 2009
Tiana makes her mark as the first African American princess, but also as character that has not only the dream, but the drive to make it happen. She works back-to-back jobs to save for her dream of opening her own restaurant. “I remember daddy told me fairy tales can come true, but you’ve got to make them happen. It all depends on you,” she sings.
When Tiana meets Prince Naveen, romance is the last thing on her mind. When love does start to blossom, does Tiana throw her dream to the wind? No, no. Nothing could keep her from reaching her dream – not slimy landlords, the broken-down building or even being turned into a frog could stop her.
Tiana reminds girls that it is okay to put your dreams first. The world, even these days, will tell you to settle down and have a family because you “can’t have it all.” The Princess and the Frog shows us that you can wait for the love of a prince who helps you reach your dream, not a prince just who replaces it.
In a genre highly populated with stories of princesses seeking their prince, Brave‘s Princess Merida is seeking anything but him. Disney and Pixar take a spin on the classic “princess plot” to show that not all women seek love right away. Some would rather seek adventure.
With a soul as wild as her hair, Merida is an ode to the adventurous spirit that lies inside all women. A spirit that many women loose as they get older. Merida’s relationship with her traditional mother also brings into the light the way that old traditions can hold a woman back from her true potential. Merida’s mother, Queen Elinor, raises her daughter to be what a princess should be rather than realizing that her daughter could be so much more.
After defying her mother, Merida and her mother’s transformative adventure leads Queen Elinor to find her adventurous spirit once again. With new eyes, the queen sees her daughter with value beyond being a “perfect princess.”
In Brave, Merida’s fight against the status quo shows us that accepting hard realities because “that is the way they have always been” isn’t going to do anything. If no one ever questions the way things are, we would never grow as a society. Merida says, “It’s the one thing we search for, or fight to change. Some never find it. But there are some who are led.”