A few weeks ago while hosting a baby shower, I overheard a conversation regarding Disney Princesses and how they are terrible role models for little girls. Although I’ll never relenquish my desire for Cinderella’s ballgown and Ariel’s perfect late 80’s hair and bangs, the fact remains that most female Disney characters aren’t good role models for girls. The group discussing this went on to decide that there are zero exceptions among the group, but this is where I beg to differ. Although there may be more, three characters stand out as “independent womanists” and exceptional examples of strong girls.
Belle from Beauty and the Beast
Belle may not jump out at you as an independent womanist, but trust me on this one. She’s the introverted book nerd all the townspeople have yet to figure out. Rather than try and conform, she keeps on with her reading and helping her father with his inventions. When the most eligible and handsome jerk in the village proposes to her, she refuses. She won’t marry someone she doesn’t love, she won’t marry an idiot, and she won’t marry because it’s expected of her. Cut to Belle’s father going missing and her jumping on the back of a horse to go look for him. Notice she doesn’t go get a guy to help her, she just goes by herself. When she finds him, she offers herself as a replacement for him in one of the most selfless acts I’ve ever seen in a Disney movie (except for Mulan, see below). When the Beast is in many ways even worse than Gaston, she is patient and kind, but firm with him, refusing to be treated without respect. In the end, it is Belle who rescues the occupants of the castle with her ability to love the Beast for who he is and not as he appears. And it is Belle who becomes the hero of her own story
Tiana from The Princess and the Frog
Oh, Tiana. So many lessons can be learned from this character. She is poor, but content. She is content, but has realistic dreams and a plan for achieving them. Not dreams of a prince coming, or birds singing, or hoping to get her voice back from the sea witch (Ariel, I’ll always love you), but dreams of opening her own restaurant. A restaurant she has worked shift after shift to earn the money to buy. When a smooth-talking prince finally does show up, she is less than impressed and barely tolerates him. And even though anyone who has seen the movie knows they do end up married at the end, I love that rather than riding off to his kingdom somewhere, Tiana stays exactly where she is and finally opens that restaurant.
Mulan from Mulan
Where do I begin with Mulan? Even in the opening scenes of the movie, we already see Mulan is a little less than thrilled about the idea of an arranged marriage and trying to be someone she is not. Despite disappointing her parents because she not exactly the ideal lady, she respects and honors them in everything she does. This respect and love are taken to an entirely different level, however, when Mulan’s father is called to war. He is old and he is sick, but determined to go. Rather than see her father willingly march to his own death, she takes his suit of armor, pretends to be a man, and joins the army. Once at training camp, she works twice as hard as the men, only to prove to herself and everyone else that she is an exceptional soldier. Not in spite of being a woman, but in her own right. The story winds to a close, not with Mulan needing to be saved by a man, but rescuing the army and saving the Imperial City from the Huns. I’ll just go ahead and say what everyone is thinking at this point, Mulan kicks a**.
So, let’s recap the lessons we learn from these three: refusing to conform to society’s norms, refusing to marry because it’s expected, sacrifice for the sake of a father, rescuing an entire castle, seeing beyond appearances, being content with what you have, having dreams and a plan to see them come true, not being swayed by beauty and money, refusal to sacrifice your own goals for a man, respect and honor, being a soldier, rescuing a city and it’s army….
Yep. Good role models for girls. And definitely worthy of the title Independent Womanists.