In 2003, singing group sensation, The Cheetah Girls from Disney Channel’s movie of the same name defied the traditional damsel in distress storyline when they covered i5’s girl power anthem, “Cinderella.” With lyrics like, “Don’t wanna depend on no one else, I’d rather rescue myself,” and “I can slay my own dragons… my knight in shining armor is me,” they put a new spin on girls and women expectations, proving they can thrive on their own. But that was just one example of how Disney movies can portray their girl characters in a positive light, with many Disney heroines breaking free from the norm.
Throughout the years, Disney has expanded its range of characters, thereby demonstrating the importance of representation. Once upon a time, Disney characters would follow the conventional route of a white princess and her handsome Prince Charming, but more recently, we’ve seen princesses of different backgrounds, and some even without a love interest. The House of Mouse has also created women superheroes, some with superpowers and others just plainly empowering as normal people. Throughout Disney and Pixar Animation’s movies, here are 8 of the most empowering women characters.
8 Nala in The Lion King
The Lion King‘s Simba formed a symbiotic relationship with Timon and Pumbaa in the way that they raised him, and he protected them, being at the top of the food chain. When Pumbaa, the gluttonous but lovable warthog, is almost killed and eaten by a vicious female lion, Simba springs into action and once defeated, he realizes he’s come face to face with his childhood friend, Nala, the tough big cat and only one who could pin him down that way since youth. Simba’s absence, as well as the death of his father, the former King Mufasa, turned the once acceptable Pridelands, into shambles with lack of food and water for those remaining. Nala took matters into her own hands, courageously leaving to find help. Though some lions frighteningly conformed to Scar’s new lifestyle, Nala rebelled against their reign and encouraged Simba to return to where he belongs.
7 Mulan in Mulan
In Mulan, the request for male fighters didn’t stop the eponymous heroine from donning a man’s attire and changing her name, all to keep her elderly father from serving the nation. In one of Disney’s most inspirational numbers, General Shang requires each man to climb up a pole and retrieve an arrow. Set to the tune of Donny Osmond’s absolute banger, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” displays the struggles each soldier endured shooting arrows, snatching fish from a pond and trekking their own body weight. Like the rest of the men, Mulan struggled to complete each task, but when General Shang labels her unsuited for the war, and sends her home, she sees it as an opportunity to show that she can do it. Through the chill-inducing sequence, Mulan is able to climb to the top of the pole and though the activity took her from evening to sunrise, Mulan so confidently tosses the arrow right in front of Shang’s tent, making it the first thing he sees that morning. And if that wasn’t convincing enough, Mulan’s heroic actions save China, leaving the city – and even the emperor – to bow down to her.
6 Dwarfs in Lilo & Stitch
Lilo & Stitch‘s Nani Pelaki is a walking embodiment of “not all heroes wear capes.” Where some Disney heroines obtain magical powers and go on knightly journeys, Nani was an everyday teenager, juggling work, boys, and of course taking care of her unhinged younger sister and her new troublesome pet. After a rainstorm kills their parents, Nani is appointed to become Lilo’s guardian, which is met with issues along the way, especially given her young age. Through the movie, we see that Nani puts her little sister before everything, and once Lilo disappears, she willingly encounters three suspicious aliens, beating one of them – Stitch – with a branch, showing how determined she was to find her sister.
5 Helen Parr / Elastigirl in The Incredibles
Disney is known for keeping fictional moms out of the story, but even so, many mothers have appeared in their movies. Helen aka Elastigirl is the mother of the Parr family, sticking to her parental duties like giving the baby a bath, picking up the kids from school, making sure they eat their vegetables and using her stretchy body to protect her superhuman children from the bomb explosion incoming to the private jet she was flying. Throughout both The Incredibles and The Incredibles 2, Elastigirl both affectionately plays the mother figure, and saves lives and protects her city, so much so that in the second film, her heroic endeavors were on every TV channel. She isn’t just a superhero; she’s a super mom.
4 Tiana in The Princess and the Frog
In the beginning of The Princess and the Frog, viewers get a taste of just how different Tiana and Charlotte’s lives are. Where Disney’s first Black princess lived in a small, poor community, her best friend hailed from a luxurious neighborhood, and basically got everything she wanted. But growing up in poverty didn’t stop Tiana from achieving her dreams (and neither did becoming a frog). Tiana was so determined to get her own restaurant, she worked multiple jobs, leading one of your friends to even insist that all she ever does is work. But as Tiana stated, “Every little penny counts,” and her hard work earned herself her own restaurant, fit for a princess, which she named Tiana’s Palace.
3 Merida in Brave
Disney Pixar’s first and only princess Merida in Brave was anything but traditional royalty. Much to her mother’s dismay, the fiery redhead would rather shoot a bow and arrow than find herself a husband. When an archery contest is set up to win Merida’s hand in marriage, the Scottish teen voluntarily puts herself into the competition, delivering the memorable line, “I am Merida, first-born descendant of Clan DunBroch, and I’ll be shooting for my own hand, ”allowing Merida to express her true feelings, show off her awesome archery skills, and prove to her family that she chooses freedom over an arranged marriage.
2 Moana in Moana
Moana had a special relationship with the ocean and knew there was a mission out there waiting for her. Despite her parents’ wishes, she listened to her own instincts, seeking a better life for her people on the island. While Moana’s journey to save Tahiti is accompanied by the demigod Maui, the heroine essentially does the dirty work by herself. With Moana, Disney not only showed that their women characters can accomplish great things, but also that they do not need a prince or love interest of any kind. In fact, even with a male sidekick, Moana was the first (non-Pixar) Disney princess to not have a prince.
1 Raya in Raya and the Last Dragon
Raya is one of Disney’s most recent princesses who embarked on a quest to retrieve a legendary dragon that would restore her land of Kumandra and its people. Raya and the Last Dragon features the eloquent words, “It may feel impossible, but sometimes, you just have to take the first step, even before you’re ready,” inspired by a similar Nelson Mandela quote. Not only is Raya a bosslady martial artist warrior, she also never leaves behind a friend and learns that team work makes the dream work. Like Moana and Merida, Raya managed to earn herself a Disney princess title without a prince, proving to young girls that they can all be labeled princesses, even without a white knight.
The latest poster for Jordan Peele’s Nope mysteriously finds a horse levitating into the night sky.
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