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.”
Pocahontas is a free-spirited woman, but as daughter to the chief, she has many expectations to live up to. When Kokoum asks for her hand in marriage, she is forced to choose between the smoothest path and the one she still feels called to follow.
When Pocahontas chooses to wait and see what is just around the river bend, she meets John Smith. When the two see each other for the first time, her unwavering strength shines. At the barrel point of a gun, she doesn’t run, she doesn’t scream. She stands.
Despite the demands of her father and her friend Nakoma, Pocahontas continues to build her relationship with John Smith until he is taken hostage by the members of her tribe. The morning he is to be killed, Pocahontas’s strength shines through once more. She throws herself onto John Smith, saving him from the deadly blow of her father.
Pocahontas teaches girls to be open minded, to learn and be curious about all things around them, even if they are different from what they had known before. The film also shows girls how to look beyond skin color and the barrier it still creates in relationships even today, over 400 years later from Pocahontas’s time.
After feeling as though she had dishonored her family by not fitting the mold of a “nice, quiet woman,” Mulan knew that the only way to win it back would be to fight in the Emperor’s army in the place of her father.
Disguising herself as a man, Mulan trains to become a warrior, but has some difficulty at first. She lags behind until she finally discovers her strength and will to continue. An arrow sits lonely at the top of a pole in the camp courtyard. After being asked to leave the army, Mulan finds the strength and smart to reach the arrow that no other warrior could. Mulan never once uses the fact that she is female to allow herself from being at par or excelling past the talents of the other, male soldiers.
Mulan teaches young girls that anything is possible. The world will tell you that “you can’t because you are a girl,” but the truth is you can. While men and women are most definitely different, that doesn’t mean that women can’t be better.
So for yourself and your future or present children, think about keeping these films close by. A story can change a person’s life and if you ask me, these are some of the greatest stories of all time.
Amanda is a post-graduate with an unhealthy addiction to working at theme parks. Her greatest loves are writing, singing in her car and not cooking. Follow her adventures at wwww.thegirlinmotion.com and on Twitter.