These days, pop culture is teeming with movies featuring complex female characters and intrepid heroines who swoop in to save the day. I’m thinking of blockbusters like Gravity, The Hunger Games, Brave, Frozen, and The Help, to say nothing of indies like We Are the Best. Hooray for progress! But how about those movies we grew up with—the ones that were surprisingly more empowering than we realized back then? Let’s scroll through some of those flicks with strong female leads for us kids, waaay back in the day.
The Parent Trap
Most people think of this film as just a charming tale of two precocious 11-year-old girls. But, hello. They’re not just precocious. They’re clever little masterminds with big hearts who orchestrate the marriage of two adults. That takes serious brains and courage, and Hallie and Annie are willing to jump through a helluva lot of hoops to accomplish their goal (like living in foreign countries and faking their identities). I know this li’l work of fiction doesn’t rank anywhere near the huge, real-life bravery of Malala, for example, but it does send the message that you’re never too young to make a difference. Bravo, ladies.
The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement
I’d prefer if the title was The Princess Diaries 2: Guts, Integrity, and Intelligence, but I don’t call the shots. Nonetheless, it’s true. Like The Godfather, this story only gets better in its second installment. In the first movie, Mia (the classy Anne Hathaway) wasn’t even sure she wanted to be a princess. Here, she steps up to the plate as queen of Genovia after demonstrating her leadership prowess with an unplanned speech and inspiring kindness (our hearts melted when she made all the underprivileged kids from the children’s shelter feel like princesses during the Independence Day parade). Ignore the tiara: This movie is about stepping up to the plate. We <3 you, Mia.
At six years old, Matilda is one very smart cookie, reading a gazillion books and tapping into some serious telekinetic powers. Even now, I admire her strong will, patience, witty rhetoric, and clever strategies for bringing down the ever-evil Miss Trunchbull—like when she uses her mind grape to tip a glass of water containing a newt onto the vile principal, or when she pretends to be a ghost by writing on the chalkboard. My heart belongs to Roald Dahl.
Mulan is the ultimate Disney princess war hero. Disguised as a boy named Ping, Mulan jumps some seriously high hurdles to join the war for her father and restore peace to China. Mulan endures the usual sexism, grueling physical strength tests, and the horrors of battle to defend her country. She’s no Sleeping Beauty, and it was about time that a princess harnessed power rather than waiting around for a prince to rescue her.
Tyra Banks as Eve was our definitive girl crush in 2000. Determined to be the best human possible, it’s impossible not to love the doll come to life. Eve saves seventh grader Casey Stuart (Lindsay Lohan) after she almost gets hit by a truck, helps Casey deal with the loss of her mom, and instills confidence in her dad’s coworker. We’ll take Eve any day over Barbie.
Elle Woods shatters the insulting stereotype of the dumb blonde by at first appearing to both embody and embrace it. Her motivations are purely romantic, she’s traditional in every way, and she’s even got a yappy little dog as a sidekick. But once she savvily charms her way into Harvard Law School and joins an elite team of student lawyers to argue a case, she basically proves that she’s the s—. Let’s be real, Reese Witherspoon can act her butt off, but she can never disguise her brilliance for long. Oh, and in the end, Elle decides she doesn’t need the buffoon who motivated her to apply to Harvard in the first place.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
This is another from-frivolous-to-formidable tale of female kickassery. Buffy (Kristy Swanson), once the empty-headed cheerleader, soon becomes an epic vampire hunter, because staving off evil isn’t only a man’s job. Would Luke Perry think to use a cross and some hairspray to devise a makeshift flame-thrower and bring down vampire king Lothos? Doubtful, guys. Doubtful. Plus, this movie spawned the even more awesome and inspiring television series by Joss Whedon. It’s glorious all around.