Since the 1937 premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves Walt Disney Studios has become synonymous with excellence in family entertainment. The studio has faced criticism in recent years, however, regarding its depiction of female characters with modern critics accusing the studio of promoting outdated and sexist values. While many of the studio’s earlier efforts reflect the traditional values of the eras in which they were released, the studio has also created numerous heroines who are every bit as complex, clever, and capable as their male counterparts. This week, I’ll be shining the spotlight on three Disney ladies who personify what it means to fight like a girl.
|I ain't afraid of no huns|
Mulan: Joan of Arc had the Lord to guide her, she was a sister who really cooked, and then there’s Mulan. In the 1998 film Mulan, the title heroine defies both her family and the whole of society when she joins in China’s fight against the invading Huns. At the film’s start she resigns herself to the restrictive role society has assigned to her and prepares to enter an arranged marriage. Despite her best efforts, however, her unconventional personality shines through, leading the local matchmaker to deem her ‘unmarriageable’. She soon finds good use for her tomboyish lack of proprietary, however, when the emperor orders the conscription of one man from each household. To save her elderly father from the perils of battle she disguises herself as a man and enlists in his place. She then overcomes numerous physical and emotional challenges while shouldering the additional burden of concealing her identity, eventually becoming one of the best soldiers in her regiment. Just as her mission nears success, however, she faces ostracism once again when she is wounded in battle and her true identity is revealed. Despite being dishonorably discharged, she refuses to abandon her comrades and re-joins her regiment just in time to save China.
While Mulan’s deeds on the battlefield are the stuff of legend, it is her selflessness, humbleness, and resilience that make her an ideal role model. Throughout the film she dedicates herself to helping others both on and off the battlefield. It is this self-sacrifice that first prompts her to enlist and later leads her to return to her regiment even after her comrades reject her. As a result, her actions display heroism in its truest sense as she repeatedly risks her reputation and safety not for any personal glory or recognition, but to ensure the safety of her family and country. While she regularly faces physical dangers, it is her emotional resilience that holds greater resonance. Throughout the film she faces criticism from those around her, but rather than crumble she uses this criticism to motivate herself to succeed. Throughout her journey she also retains a sense of humbleness as she allows neither her fame nor her success to cloud her judgment. For a girl worth fighting alongside hop into the saddle with Mulan.
|That slight come hither stare, it's witchcraft...|
Esmeralda: When she first appears at the Festival of Fools Esmeralda is described as “the finest girl in France” and after one viewing of The Hunchback of Notre Dame you won’t have to wonder why. While she may not be a historic heroine or princess like many other Disney heroines, she is easily one of the most original and complex protagonists in all of Disney. At the film’s start she is struggling to earn a living as a dancer on the streets of Paris. When a group of soldiers harass her and accuse her of stealing the money that she legally earned, she refuses to tolerate either their accusations or racist taunts and defends herself despite the consequences. She later displays even more courage when she defends complete stranger Quasimodo against the wrath of the local mob for no reason other than because it is the right thing to do. She doesn’t stop at freeing Quasimodo from his attackers, however, as she then goes on to denounce both the mob for their abusive behavior and corrupt judge Claude Frollo for failing to hold them accountable. She continues to show compassion towards Quasimodo when she sets out to befriend him and teaches him to believe in himself when others shun him for his appearance. When her defiance inspires a fascination in Frollo that spirals into lustful obsession she repeatedly rejects his lecherous advances despite the power and influence that he possesses and threatens to use against her. Even when confronted with the terrible choice of offering herself to Frollo or facing execution she refuses to compromise her own values and submit to him. Throughout the film she is derided for her race, her profession, and her non-conformity, and yet she never loses sight of the fact that there are still others less fortunate then her. In a particularly poignant moment the script goes so far as to show that even in her prayers she puts others first when she says, “I ask for nothing, I can get by. But I know so many less lucky than I”. While Frollo may describe her as a witch sent by the devil himself, Esmeralda consistently displays a moral courage, selflessness, and sense of justice that are nothing short of angelic. For a character living in the 15th century she possesses all the intelligence and independence of the most modern of women. From the moment that she whirls onto the screen Esmeralda dances to the beat of her own tambourine, providing an example that we could all aspire to.
|Real women read|
Belle: She’s a beauty but a funny girl that Belle, and the Beast and viewers alike love her all the more for it. Many consider Beauty and the Beast’s bookish heroine to be Disney’s first modern princess. Unlike her predecessors, Belle longs not for a prince, but instead to find her own place in the world. While the other girls in her small town are ready to settle down and start a family she remains determined to find something more beyond the confines of her ‘provincial life’. As a result, while the other girls in town are charmed by local ladies’ man Gaston, Belle rejects his repeated proposals without hesitation. She also admirably stays true to herself by pursuing the intellectual interests that make her a subject of constant gossip and speculation. Even as she maintains her independence, however, she still dedicates herself to helping others, especially her father. When the townspeople routinely mock Maurice for his forward thinking and accuse him of suffering from mental illness Belle remains firmly by her father’s side. After he disappears on his way to a nearby inventor’s fair she springs into action without hesitation and sets out alone to find him. Later, when she learns that her father is being held captive at the Beast’s castle she makes the ultimate sacrifice by offering to take Maurice’s place as the Beast’s prisoner. Even when confronted with the daunting reality of her new life as a prisoner in an enchanted castle she refuses to fall into despair and instead makes the best of her situation by forming bonds with the household staff. Despite her confined status, she also continues to assert herself in her relationship with the Beast by insisting that he treat her with respect and learn to control his temper. Even in her relationship with the Beast, however, she displays loyalty and selflessness. This is first shown when she stays at the castle to make sure that the Beast receives medical care after he is injured, when she easily could have used his injury to her advantage and escaped. Belle proves her loyalty and kindness once again when she pleads with the Beast to free her in order to tend to her ailing father, but returns just in time to help the Beast in his battle against Gaston. Over the course of her fantastic adventure she overcomes overwhelming obstacles with an intelligence and ferocity that rivals those of any Disney hero. Whether she’s facing local gossip, enchanted spells, or villainous schemes Belle maintains a fundamental grace, selflessness, and optimism that make her a true beauty both inside and out.