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The 5 Most Empowering Disney Films for Girls

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 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.

Brave, 2012


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.”

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  • Kristen Rose

    What about Nani from Lilo and Stitch? Not only is she a great one when it comes to the argument that Disney only draws skinny women, but she also has taken on the responsibility of taking care of her younger sister because their parents had passed away

    • Amanda Halle

      Great point Kristen, Nani was actually on my list but the article was getting so long, she didn’t make it into the top five. I completely agree that she is a strong Disney female character! Also Lilo and Stitch is a fantastic film.

  • Veronika Specht

    Thank you! So many people bash Disney films, without realizing that there are still so many good role models and messages in Disney princesses and movies. It is nice to see people who are of the same opinion :)

  • Kristen Rose

    Other than that, it’s a great article. Happy to see that someone write an article about Disney being empowering for young girls, as opposed to the opposite.

  • Samantha Huntley

    I would say that Frozen also represents a positive empowerment of women. It shows that an act of true love doesn’t only come from finding “the one” or a significant other. It shows that it can come from family, sisters or friends. It also shows that women supporting and building up other women is just as important or if not more important than earning respect from men.

  • Aline Firmino Brito

    I believe Belle (Beauty and The Beast) is also a great examble, she loves to ready, learn, doesn’t accept the guy just because he has a pretty face, but searches for someone that can trully be her partner in life, and respect her for what she relly is. She also give up everything to protect her father, and also run to save her beloved one(as she had promised).

  • Hannah Burns

    How about Belle? She is so smart, and she is the first princess who saves her prince. She never waits around like some damsel in distress. I 100% agree with the other choices. Pocahontas is my girl.

  • Elizabeth Grace Parsons

    The problem that I have with this article is that most of these female characters still end up with the guy at the end. They go the entire movie, and many make great strides for Disney, however the movie is just incomplete without the man to swoop in at the end. In the end of Mulan, for example, she saves an entire country practically single handedly, and yet when she gets home, her grandmother says “If you ask me, she should have brought home a man.” As if all of her accomplishments meant nothing without a man being there to “complete” the fairy tale. Disney has definitely made some gains with female empowerment (Brave, Frozen), but I believe that they still have far to go.

  • Kristine Abshier

    Glad to see freaking Frozen is not on this list.

  • Korah Lombardi

    Lilo and stitch!!!!!

  • Jackie Bona

    Amazing article with a lot of great points. Mulan is definitely my favorite out of this set. When covering her movie as part of my 101 favorite movies project,, her strength as a character was a big focus for me. Kinda annoyed, though, when she’s thrust into the category of “Disney princesses” when she’s not royalty nor does she marry into it…

  • Sara Jean DePasquale

    Yes, I agree–these movies reflect our changing cultural values. Disney movies like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, etc. made in the 50’s, reflect very outdated gender norms… It is nice to see the progress we have made, but I would also have liked to see in this article a comparison drawn between the ages. I never looked up to Sleeping Beauty, she was so boring!

  • Pedro Alves

    The Little Mermaid (Tv Series, Ariel ROCKS there), Princess Diaries, Mary Poppins, Enchanted, Frozen, Lilo and Stich, Atlantis The Lost Empire, ALICE IN FREAKIN WONDERLAND, ICE PRINCESS, LIKE PLEASESO MANY honestly….And even the oldest ones like Cinderella or Snow White were incredibly strong and clever for their time periode.

    • Charlie Elizabeth London

      …uhm… Pocahontas and The Little Mermaid are NOT strong portrayals of women. Let me give you guys a hint: any time the girl falls in love with the guy after seeing him for TWO SECONDS that’s NOT positive or strong. A strong portrayal of a female character and a positive example is where a) it doesn’t have a “and they got married and lived haaapillyyy everrr after. Theeeeee End.” schtick *gag* b) she is independent and thinks for herself and what is best for herself. If the answer to that is only “shacking up with prince charming” that is not positive.

      FROZEN is GREAT because it’s Disney making fun of it’s marriage-agenda past. “You’re not marrying a guy you met 5 minutes ago.” And look! Elsa was right to be so cautious. That guy turned out to be abusive and sadistic and only cared about himself.

      Lilo and Stich INCREDIBLY strong portrayal of women. Nani is a teenager left to take care of her kid sister. She doesn’t have the time to really commit to the relationship with David, but he is understanding and is as supportive as he can be. He portrays a really great and positive role for MEN, actually, because he is patient and understanding and kind. He sees that Nani is doing the best she can to raise her sister and ensure that Lilo isn’t taken away by CPS.

      But Ariel? Strong portrayal of women? What, she’s brave because she trusted the sea witch when she should have said “uhm. hah. no guy is worth me losing my voice/ life/ health over.” Nope. Instead she says “I’m going to risk it all for Prince Eric.” Fool.

      • Christy Farrant

        Oh soo.. Ana and Kristoff didn’t end up together after knowing each other for a couple days ?

  • Jeanette Cheong

    I love the recognition that empowering films get from this article! I do think that the author is skewing a plot point of Mulan in order to argue for its role in empowerment though. Mulan doesn’t join the army in order to regain honor for her family, because a woman joining the army traditionally pretty much brings immediate dishonor to the family. Rather, she joins the army in order to save her father’s life. She defies societal convention by selflessly protecting her family, recognizing that “honor” in the context of her strict society does not make sense, which I think is a much more powerful argument.

  • Amanda Halle

    Hi Everyone! Thank you so much for your feedback on my article. I love hearing all of your thoughts on the choices I made and others you would like to have seen added. I think that all Disney films teach valuable lessons and each “princess” or character embodies something we can look up to. When making the list, I tried hard to focus on characters that were not only taking actions that helped better themselves, but ones that sought justice. peace and challenge of the status quo for the betterment of others. I love the conversations that have come from this! Please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter to let me know your thoughts! @MandiRaye

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