Girl Power: Five of Disney’s Most Empowering Female Leads

By now, you’ve likely seen—or at least heard hit songs from—the mega-hit Frozen. The Disney film sold more than 3 million Blu-ray and DVD copies on its first day of release, won two Oscars for Best Song and Best Animated Film and has already become one of Disney’s most successful animated films. 

Having only recently transitioned from damsels in distress to independent, strong leading characters, Disney’s newest female stars prove that powerlessness is a thing of the past. Frozen’s Elsa and Anna impart the kind of lessons we want young girls to learn—that you can be yourself; no one else needs to define you—and looking foward, we see that Disney’s next feature film, Inside Out, also features a young girl as the lead.

Set in the head of 11-year-old Riley, where five emotions (Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear and Sadness) try to navigate her through life as she moves from Minnesota to California, the project is being directed by Pixar’s Pete Doctor, who wrote Toy Story, Monster’s, Inc., WALL-E, and UP. 
The film is due out in 2015.

Though Disney has relied on the damsel-in-distress narrative, here are five empowering female role models dug up from the past.

The Princess and the Frog

Tiana was Disney’s first African-American princess, but her grit, determination and dedication are what make her stand out. Many of us have dreams but lack the drive to see them through. Not Tiana. She works endlessly in an attempt to open her own restaurant, singing as she goes.

As with most classic princess stories, Tiana meets a prince—Prince Naveen. Yet, even as romance does start to blossom, she never lets go of her dream. Nothing can stop her from achieving her goals, which, she reminds us, is OK. Tiana believes she can have it all, and she shows us that it’s worth waiting for the love of someone who will help you see your dream through, not merely replace it.


Megara, or “Meg,” is one of the wittiest female leads Disney ever produced. When we first meet her, she’s in an old-fashioned damsel-in-distress situation: The centaur river guardian Nessus is manhandling her. But when Hercules steps in to save her, she refuses, saying, “I’m a damsel, I’m in distress, I can handle this. Have a nice day.” She is unimpressed with his “big, innocent farm boy routine,” and, moving forward, resists the urge to fall in love. 

Meg sold her soul to the devil in order to save the man she loves, has to do his bidding, and then tries to break the deal because eventually she, against her will, falls in love again. Independent, fierce, funny and strong, she understands that being with just anyone won’t make her happy—but holding out for the right person just might.


Never fitting into the mold of a nice, quiet woman, Mulan understood that the only way to win back her honor would be to fight in the Emperor’s army in place of her father. 

Training to become a warrior in the disguise of a man, Mulan encounters difficulty at first—until she discovers what makes her strong, and the will to continue. She achieves things all the other (male) warriors can’t and, in doing so, teaches young girls that anything is possible.

In the wake of recent advertisements questioning what it means to do things “like a girl,” Mulan teaches us that no such thing exists: men and women are obviously different, but no dividing line exists when it comes to who can accomplish what.

Beauty and the Beast

Bookish Belle is revered by brilliant, adventurous young children all over the world. Quiet and considered the odd man out, Belle is well-liked by everyone in town and very family-oriented. She dreams of travels far from her home, and when the handsome Gaston asks for her hand in marriage, she refuses. Instead, she falls for the Beast, who gifts her a library. 

While she does seemingly give up her dreams of travel in order to be with the Beast, who eventually turns into the stereotypical handsome prince, Belle gives us hope that even if you don’t fit in—in your town, in the role you’re supposed to play, wherever—there is always a place in the world where you will feel at home.


Brave’s Princess Merida is possibly the most defiant, independent and free-spirited female lead Disney has yet to create. And how lucky we are to have met her.

In a world filled with princesses seeking their prince, Merida is seeking… adventure. Adventure and fun and excitement and life—all of that before love. Take one look at her beautiful, unruly red hair, and you’ll get an idea of her spirit. It’s the spirit of a seeker that lies in most of us, the one we let dim too quickly with passing years.

Merida’s loving but argumentative relationship with her mother, who believes in the traditional roles of a princess, is an angle not yet touched on in a Disney movie. Merida doesn’t simply do battle with her mother, however; she transforms her way of thinking and pushes her to find her adventurous spirit, too.

Because if Brave teaches us anything, it’s that beliefs are worth questioning.

Andrea Fisher is a Triad-based writer, movie lover, and content specialist for Dish2u. She has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Chicago Tribune and Business Insider. Read more of her work @andreafisher007.


Categories: Movies for Children