If you’ve been on Tumblr ever, you may remember a few popular posts about the Disney feature film Frozen, like this one:
Or maybe this one:
When I laid eyes on these, and other posts like them, I was filled with the righteous fury of a woman raised during the Disney renaissance. Frozen was certainly not the first Disney film to feature capable, independent women who are not saved by men. Nor was it the first to show sisterly love, or pass the Bechdel test, or not feature a wedding at the end. Though they may have huge doe eyes and impossible waistlines, Disney’s heroines have been holding their own for a while (even Cinderella). In this, what the Collectress and I have been calling our “Feminist Disney” series, we will highlight women who leave Elsa and Anna in the dust.
The themes of exploration and independence are common in children’s movies, but there are three Disney heroines who exemplify these ideas. Pocahontas, Jane, and Rapunzel are great examples of “strong female characters” (if you want to use that term) who do not require the expertise of men to save them.
Pocahontas (Pocahontas, 1995)
I have a vivid memory of the day my mom bought me the VHS of Pocahontas. At the time, I was at the height of my Disney princess obsession, and in the middle of my Native-American-stuff-is-awesome phase (I lamented the fact that I have no native blood to speak of). This was the movie for me at the age of six. And though I learned later on that the real story of Matoaka/Amonute/Pocahontas/Rebecca was vastly different than the romanticized versions that exist in popular culture, Disney’s spin on the story stayed with me. Even though I could write an essay on the history behind Pocahontas, and the various issues with representation of native peoples, these points are solely based on the fictional story (in which we pretend that the English totally got along with the Powhatans and that Pocahontas was a woman, not a 12 year old girl).
Although she is the daughter of a great chief, Pocahontas stands apart from many other Disney princesses. She is curious about other cultures, while remaining secure in the practices of her own. She has no desire to wed, even for love. She is comfortable with nature and loves to take the path less traveled. Strong willed and resilient, she chooses her family over hottie John Smith at the end of the movie.
Oh yeah, and she saves John Smith’s ass.
That’s right, she isn’t saved by the white man; she saves the white man by throwing herself in harm’s way. Literally.
If you want a badass heroine who stops war and genocide, while also saving the life of the man she loves and staying true to herself, look no further.
Jane Porter (Tarzan, 1999)
Based on the character of the same name from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels, Jane Porter may not be a Disney princess, but she is as much a heroine as Tarzan is a hero. I have to be honest and admit that when I was a kid, I wasn’t a huge fan of this film. Although I loved the score, I thought the fact that Tarzan “surfed” the tree trunks with his bare feet was silly (where are the SPLINTERS, I ask you??), and I just couldn’t get over Jane’s weird ski jump nose. But after some recent rewatches, I can see the merit of her character, and why without her, there simply could not be a resolution to the story.
As educated as her father (a scientist), Jane is often treated as an equal throughout the film. She is inquisitive and brave, a skilled artist, and one of the most accepting females Disney has ever portrayed. Although at first she attempts to groom Tarzan into something more socially acceptable to the Western world, she is ultimately happy to regard Tarzan as her equal no matter what path he chooses in life. And when she, in turn, decides to stay with him and the gorillas, she embraces a lifestyle completely different than to what she is accustomed.
But wait! What about the scene where Tarzan saves Jane from the baboons? You remember it.
Nothing wrong with that. If I were being chased by bloodthirsty baboons, I would want a half naked man to come rescue me, too. I think we can all admit that in that moment, Jane is in an unfamiliar environment, and needs help. There is nothing anti-feminist about accepting a helping hand in one’s moment of peril. I believe that an argument can also be made for Jane rescuing Tarzan. With the help of her father, she opens his mind to his own potential. Jane expands his horizons, until he is ready to take his place as King of the Jungle.
Rapunzel (Tangled, 2010)
Disney’s take on the classic story of Rapunzel was brilliant. In the original fairy tale, Rapunzel is passive and ultimately uninteresting. In Tangled, we have a smart, skilled, and realistic heroine instead. (Well, as realistic as you can get when you have magic hair that glows when you sing.)
Rapunzel has no idea she’s a princess for a good portion of the film. Therefore, she doesn’t want to flee royal responsibility; she simply longs for the opportunity to explore the world outside her tower. For her, the entire country is the unknown path. She wants freedom, and the chance to investigate the “floating lights” she sees each year on her birthday. She wants to find herself, and when she does she is able to break free from the woman who kidnapped her, holding her captive for almost eighteen years.
In the film, she and Flynn Rider (her smoldering love interest) save each other on multiple occasions. He’s a conniving, sneaky thief with experience in getting away by any means necessary (even force). Despite this, they are on equal ground, thanks to her quick reflexes and trusty frying pan. Flynn owes her his life long before she heals him with her magic tears. Their relationship is as unconventional as magic hair, and it’s wonderful.
That’s right, she saves his butt just like Pocahontas. Get it, girl.
Like Elsa, Rapunzel possesses a strange magical power that she doesn’t really know what to do with. Mother Gothel uses it to frighten Rapunzel into not trusting anyone, motivation to never leave her tower. But unlike Elsa, Rapunzel isn’t content with staying cooped up out of fright. She faces her trepidation and attempts to overcome it. She remains cautious as she explores her new surroundings, but doesn’t shut everyone out.
Give me Rapunzel any day.
More Disney heroines to come!
The Collected Mutineer
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