Before I delve into my defense of feminism in Disney, know that I will be focusing on primarily the human-driven animated films. That means that the animal films such as Dumbo, Jungle Book, Aristocats, etc. will not come into play in my arguments, though you might be able to add to my points with them as illustrations. I am also examining, from my memory of the films, mainly Disney animated theatrical films, with two of the three human-centered Pixar movies (the three are The Incredibles, Up, and Brave) thrown into the mix. I'm going to divert from my usual paragraph format and just present a bulleted list of the positive messages found in Disney's leading ladies.
Note that my definition of feminism is a belief that ALL individuals should be treated fairly, regardless of gender, race, creed, etc. No one group of people should be given preferential treatment for any reason. There are positive qualities in both the feminine and masculine. The only thing that makes them feminine or masculine is the fact that we expect one gender over the other to display that quality more often; that does not preclude the other gender from possessing said characteristic. I believe, as Carl Jung, that each individual has both a male half and a female half, some just choose to express one over the other, sometimes both are expressed, or a neutral/neither expression occurs.
As far as stereotypical damsel-in-distress "girly" characters that seem to incredibly irk feminazis, I've found really only three in Disney's animated movie history--Cinderella, who relies on her fairy godmother to "rescue" her from a bad life; Aurora, whose prince is the most pro-active of the princes, other than Aladdin, and who is fated to simply wait for him to save her; Snow White, who is saved not only by her perfect prince, but also by her friends. So, I won't add these three to the bullet list, as they DO show the old-fashioned idea of "beauty must wait for her rescue." The rest of the female leads show a lot more initiative. Keep in mind, however, that even these three females are not entirely two-dimensional in personality. Cinderella has forgiveness and patience, Snow White has kindness and obedience, Aurora has imagination and hope to add to their characters.
- Alice (Alice in Wonderland, 1951): Shows the power, and price, of curiosity. Willing to explore on her own, learns to be careful what you wish for
- Wendy (Peter Pan, 1953): A motherly figure. Shows that a parent can be caring and provide rules for children without diminishing their love. Also stands her own against other females.
- Eilonwy (The Black Cauldron, 1985): One of the youngest princesses portrayed (she's somewhere around 11 or 12 in the film), has spunk and sass. Does complain about her conditions a bit, but also has her own source of magical power and uses her wits to trick the witches into performing a good deed. Trust and intelligence are her main strengths.
- Ariel (The Little Mermaid, 1989): Curiosity, openness, acceptance, fighting prejudice, adventurous. Opens the eyes of her prejudiced society to the potential of another world. SHE rescues the prince! Finds other ways to communicate. The acceptance and desire for harmony is highlighted much more in the animated television series of the 1990s.
- Belle (Beauty and the Beast, 1991): Intelligence, "unconventional"--doesn't satisfy herself with just looking for a husband and settling down. Wants to explore, sacrifices herself for her father. Stubborn, stands her ground against other stubborn characters. Judges others by their personality and heart, not their looks. Actions speak louder than words!
- Jasmine (Aladdin, 1992): Independent, refuses to remain sheltered, proves she has a mind of her own. Puts off marriage in order to "find herself," but does not discredit love. Kindness is combined with authority and leadership. We see so much more of this in the television series.
- Pocahontas (Pocahontas, 1995): Independent, adventurous, sees value in ALL things on the earth. Willing to sacrifice herself for her ideals (and for love). Pushes for peace and understanding over war and hatred.
- Esmeralda (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996): Spunky, sensual, strong, fighter, smart, clever. Puts the welfare of her people before her own concerns ("God Help the Outcasts"). Kind, gentle, accepts people as people, regardless of their outward appearance. Judges others based on their behavior, not status or looks.
- Meg/a.k.a. Megara (Hercules, 1997): Very strong character in terms of personality. Starts out super-feminazi (bemoans the idea of being seen as a damsel in distress), but accepts the feminine along with the masculine. Learns that love doesn't make you weak, it can make you stronger. Stands up for herself, fights for her beliefs, doesn't put up with nonsense. Keeps chauvinists in their place. A street-smart gal who has been burned before and is more cautious and wiser because of it.
- Mulan (Mulan, 1998): Blatantly obvious crossing of gender lines, yet she is still able to maintain some of her feminine side. Runs away for noble reasons (selfish reasons in the deleted scenes), proves herself as "one of the boys," puts the greater good above herself, persists in the face of sexism. Very intelligent, a natural leader, loyal, caring.
- Jane (Tarzan, 1999): Female intellectual. She isn't just following Daddy around, she is also studying and documenting what she finds on the excursions. Proper, genteel, natural educator. Defender of her philosophy, but also willing to learn from others. Adaptable, protector personality.
- Chicha (The Emperor's New Groove, 2000): Not a major player in the film, but a major influence on the characters. Strong, loving mother with an authoritative parenting style--balances love and affection and child's personal growth with guidance and structure. Pushes when it's needed, let's others find their way when she knows they can. Puts up with a LOT of stuff that other parents wouldn't tolerate, and with a good humor, too.
- Kida (Atlantis: The Lost Empire, 2001): Physically and mentally strong warrior, protector of her people and her culture. Not satisfied with the status quo, wants to improve her people's lives. The ultimate defender, willing to sacrifice herself for her people, will do what is right.
- Lilo (Lilo & Stitch, 2002): Possibly the first "geek girl" in Disney lore, in the modern sense of the term. Very independent, innocent and yet knowledgeable due to life's hard knocks. Pretty tom-boyish and also shows feminine qualities in her care for others and her desire to be welcomed into the fold. Mainly wants to be accepted for who she is, and accepts others for their quirks. Who else would adopt (and love) a destructive weird looking alien as a part of her family? Judges people based on their behaviors, not appearance, tries to see the good and/or potential in just about everyone. Many of her androgynous traits--balance of the masculine and the feminine--show up more in the television series and subsequent sequels.
- Nani (Lilo & Stitch, 2002): Independent, dependable, reliable. Works hard, perseveres, single "parent" who cares enough to put her needs aside for the greater good of her family. Although sometimes exasperated, works through her frustration to do the best she can for those she loves.
- Captain Amelia (Treasure Planet, 2002): Come on, this one is easy! A female captain! Excellent leadership, straightforward, very clever, keeps a tight ship, fighter, quick wit, nimble mind and body. Rational personality concerned about the safety of her vessel and crew above all else. Even respected by her enemies.
- Sarah Hawkins (Treasure Planet, 2002): The ever-suffering single mother, abandoned by her husband to raise a now-teenage boy by herself. Smart, personable, business owner and operator. Great customer service, people skills. Although frustrated, out of concern for her son's future, still keeps pressing on to keep things afloat.
- Helen Parr/Elastigirl (The Incredibles, 2004): Yes, another strong mother figure [I hope you don't have anything against moms!] Flexible physically and mentally (that's why the creators chose her powers for her role). Peace-maker, supporter, chose to give up her career to provide a stable home for her children. Willing to run out to rescue her husband, both literally and emotionally. Protects her kids before all else. Witty and patient.
- Tiana (The Princess and the Frog, 2009): Too much focus has been made of her race. Like all the other Disney females, she is more than just the color of her skin or her gender. A three-dimensional, fleshed out personality. Hard-working, persevering, take-no-nonsense, tolerate no laziness. Expects people to be rewarded based on their merit and their effort, not their birthright. Not afraid to get her hands dirty, will do what it takes to work her way through her problems. Very independent and self-reliant, also supportive of others.
- Rapunzel (Tangled, 2010): Definitely not a stereotypical "girly-girl," runs around bare-foot, defends herself with whatever is at hand. Believes the best in everyone (sometimes too much), but not too trusting or naive. Gets extra points for maintaining all that hair but never crying about it! Curious, intelligent, observant, quick learner, mostly honest, innocent, heart full of love. Good diplomatic skills, unselfish.
- Merida (Brave, 2012): Tom-boy, strong, agile, excellent hand-eye coordination. Too-obviously anti-feminine, at least on the surface, but comes to appreciate (eventually) the value of feminine qualities. Strong-willed, independent, stubborn, eventually opens her eyes to other view points. Possibly the most selfish of the Disney female protagonists, unfortunately. This is my main problem with the people complaining that Merida "was a good role model for 'normal-looking' girls before her make-over." I would not want either my boy (if I had one) or my girl to put their selfish needs before others. Being unselfish is not an undesirable feminine trait, it's a Christian ideal and the world would have a lot fewer problems if more people stopped thinking about themselves first at the expense of others.
- Vanellope von Schweetz (Wreck-It Ralph, 2012): Actually a princess, though not yet included in the "club" with the rest of the Disney princesses. A "tough cookie" along the lines of Esmeralda and Meg. Puts a positive spin on her solitude, picked on and bullied and teased, but still forgiving in the end. Defensive sense of humor, but not displacement-oriented. Natural racer, just wants to prove herself. Androgynous personality, shows care and concern. Doesn't want to hurt anyone, just wants a fair chance to show her abilities. Full of spunk and confidence.
- Commander Calhoun (Wreck-It Ralph, 2012): Very strong leader, take-no-spit from others, fights for what she needs to, intelligent and competent. Once bitten, ever cautious, still capable of feeling love even though she is a bit afraid at first. Beautiful can be strong.