Best and Worst Disney Role Models for Girls and Young Women
Ever since the Disney Princess line began with Snow White in 1937, debate has raged over whether Disney’s princesses and other female protagonists are good role models for young women. Some argue yes, pointing to these characters’ kindness, gentleness, and patience as traits everyone should emulate. Others cry a vehement “no.” To them, the early Disney females are too passive and dependent on men, while later incarnations are spoiled, brassy, and perhaps mannish. The same moviegoers who applauded princesses like Brave’s Merida for being strong, later decried the messages she sent after she was given a “sexed-up makeover.” Many grown women love Mulan, while others claim her story is offensive because it teaches a woman must act like a man to be accepted or feel comfortable with herself.
When it comes to the role model question, it seems Disney heroines can’t win. However, some of these characters -- princesses and otherwise -- make better role models for girls and young women than others. Careful analysis of princesses and non-princesses shows some truly are worth emulating. Others embody more negative traits than positive, and don’t give our girls much to aspire to or work toward. One could argue that within the canon of Disney heroines, there is a group of top five best and top five worst role models.
Top Five Best Disney Heroine Role Models
#5: Esmeralda, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Esmeralda gets the lowest spot on this list for a few reasons. First, her film is not as well-known as it could be and is widely considered one of Disney’s worse installments. It’s noticeably darker than most Disney films. The villain Frollo is not simply a power-hungry, greedy monster. In Hunchback, he’s a fanatical priest who sees corruption “everywhere except within.” He kills Quasimodo’s mother and tries to drown the infant because he was born with deformities. He refers to Gypsies as “vermin,” but makes blatant sexual advances toward Esmeralda. Second, Esmeralda herself, though she resists Frollo, does engage in mildly provocative behavior, such as sensual dancing. Whatever their other feelings about Disney heroines, most parents would not want their daughters engaging in some of her behavior or repeating some of her sassy dialogue.
That said, Esmeralda’s positive behavior and character traits far outweigh her shortcomings. At her core, she is a gentle and kind woman who is no respecter of persons. When Quasimodo is abused during a festival with Frollo’s explicit approval, Esmeralda defies the priest and the law to free him. She does not judge him as ugly or a monster; she sees him as a friend who is worthy of love, dignity, and respect. Esmeralda’s attitude gives Quasimodo the chance to start rebuilding the self-concept Frollo and others have worked to destroy.
Quasimodo is not the only recipient of Esmeralda’s goodwill. She is one of Disney’s most selfless characters, with a deep concern for outcasts in her society. Though she is one herself, she doesn’t play the victim. “I ask for nothing; I can get by,” she sings in her famous solo “God Help the Outcasts.” She seeks divine intervention for her people and those like them, not wealth, fame, or even protection. The fact that she turns to God -- a higher power than herself -- for help teaches viewers there is a world out there bigger than themselves. It’s great to be strong and stand up for others. It’s required at times. Yet it’s also admirable to reach out to the world around and above us for friendship, support, and assistance. Esmeralda is a good portrait of what it means to strike a balance between changing one’s world and taking time to find your own place in it.
#4: Cinderella, Cinderella
The titular character of Disney’s twelfth animated feature is often accused of being passive, weak, and anti-feminist. Detractors allege she simply waits around for a prince to rescue her, not doing anything to change her dismal situation. Yet, these same detractors forget in her time period, Cinderella would have had few other options than to remain a servant to her abusive stepfamily. She is almost completely isolated because her stepmother doesn’t let her experience life outside her home. Furthermore, Cinderella never indicates she wants to be rescued. She only wants a chance to go to the ball -- to have a night off, socialize, and be recognized as a person, as other young women her age do every day.
Cinderella’s goals, therefore, are much nobler than they seem at first. She communicates girls and women should want to be seen and heard, and there is nothing wrong with finding constructive avenues for that. Although she is perpetually dressed in rags, dirty from cinders, and treated like a slave, Cinderella never loses sight of her worthiness. Her poise, grace, and compassion indicate she remembers she was once a gentleman’s daughter. Her father may be gone and her days of leisure long over, but however unconsciously, Cinderella remembers who she is inside and acts on it.
No one should passively accept abuse, but they can maintain mature attitudes in the face of being wronged. Cinderella never lashes out at her stepfamily, refuses their orders, or takes her frustrations out on innocent people or animals. Note she isn’t emotionless; she does express anger and frustration at her lot in life, breaking down and crying piteously in one scene. When her stepmother locks Cinderella in her room and threatens to jeopardize her future with the prince, Cinderella yells, screams, and bangs at the door. She tries every way possible to escape and ultimately succeeds. The key is, she doesn’t resort to blame, victimization, or holding a grudge. While recognizing her situation is horrible and doing everything she can to get out, Cinderella maintains a positive outlook and hope that said situation will improve. Thus, she becomes an example of how girls and women -- how everyone -- should strive to act in the face of adversity.
#3: Anna, Frozen
Princess Anna is another Disney heroine with an interesting mix of imitable and undesirable traits. Many viewers classify her as a negative role model because she becomes engaged to a prince she’s known less than a day. During much of the movie, she continues insisting this prince, Hans, is her true love. She sometimes comes across as weak, victimized, or naïve, much like Cinderella. However, Anna possesses a wealth of good characteristics.
Anna’s whimsy and zest are the first traits a viewer might notice and be drawn to. Like Cinderella, Anna spent her life incredibly sheltered. Unlike Cinderella, she fully recognizes there is a big world around her and can’t wait to explore it. She yearns to meet people, make friends, and have experiences she’s only dreamed of thus far. At the same time, she embraces the most ordinary things about Arendelle with her whole heart, such as a flock of baby chicks or castle gates thrown wide open for the first time in years. When tempered with prudence, Anna’s fearlessness and love of life are traits girls should strive to develop.
Along with her zest, it’s easy to notice Anna’s tenacity. From the time she’s a small child, “give up” is not in this girl’s vocabulary. She spends years persistently asking Elsa to “build a snowman” -- in other words, come out and play, stop shutting the world out, and overcome her fears. When the sisters are older, Anna goes after Elsa to bring her back to Arendelle, although the older girl’s ice powers have terrified the citizens. “She’s my sister; she’d never hurt me,” Anna tells Kristoff with conviction, despite the physical evidence before her. With one line, Anna teaches viewers two valuable lessons. One, never give up on those you love. Two, what your senses tell or show you is not always the same as what is true. Despite her monumental mistake with Hans, Anna slowly becomes an example of maturity and discernment. She may be a young adult during most of Frozen, but emotionally, she grows up much the same way real girls do.
#2: Belle, Beauty and the Beast
If Cinderella has long been considered an enemy of feminism, Belle of Beauty and the Beast has been lauded as one of the ultimate heroines girls should want to be like. There are several reasons for this, which earn Belle one of the top two spots on this list.
Belle’s love of books is the first thing to catch viewers’ attention. When we first meet her, she is headed to town with a book in her basket and goes straight to the bookseller’s to exchange it for an old favorite. When the bookseller tells Belle she can keep the novel, our heroine is overjoyed. Her character communicates reading is wonderful and books are priceless treasures to be enjoyed. However, Belle doesn’t limit her love of reading to fairytales. Through her use of words like “primeval,” the movie subtly points out she’s always possessed an intellectual bent. She’s smart, and she teaches girls it’s acceptable, even cool, to use their brains.
Like Esmeralda, Belle resists the status quo, though in a more understated way. While other girls swoon over Gaston, she recognizes him for the arrogant and self-serving buffoon he is. Her neighbors think her father is at best strange and at worst crazy, but Belle gives him unconditional love and loyalty. She praises her father’s inventions and believes they are useful, and later sacrifices her freedom for him. She is able to see past the Beast’s rough, intimidating exterior. Her politeness, gentleness, and self-sacrifice inspire the Beast to act more like the human he is inside than the animal he’s let himself become.
Finally, Belle is worth emulating because she’s open-minded. In short order, she figures out the Beast’s castle is enchanted. Unlike a typical villager who might suspect sinister plots are afoot, she gladly accepts this quirk of her new environment. When Cogsworth the butler/clock seems alarmed that Belle has discovered the enchantment, she puts him at ease with a wry smile. “I figured it out for myself,” she says without malice or suspicion. Throughout the movie, she never seems confused or bothered that the housekeeper is a teapot, or that the stove can talk while it prepares her food. They aren’t objects, but rather her friends.
Belle is most open-minded with the Beast. At first, his behavior naturally puts her off. Yet she is gradually persuaded there is good in him, and works to help him find it. Even when the Beast does something disgusting like diving face first into his soup, Belle reacts with understanding instead of horror. In her quiet, persistent way, she teaches us how to act when we encounter someone different from us. She encourages us to accept and see the good in them so we can all become better versions of ourselves.
#1: Tiana, The Princess and the Frog
Tiana nets the top spot on the list of best Disney role models for girls and young women. Like Belle and Cinderella, she doesn’t begin as a princess. She’s a hardworking waitress holding down two jobs in 1920s New Orleans. She doesn’t dream of a prince or even a night out of the kitchen; she wants to earn enough money to open her own restaurant. To that end, Tiana goes tirelessly after her goal. She’s grateful for every little bit she can put toward it, and doesn’t mind if others are skeptical. She teaches girls what it means to work for a dream rather than simply wishing for it to come true. Additionally, Tiana is a career woman in a time when young black women like herself didn’t have many options. She teaches girls to hold onto and work toward their dreams no matter what odds are against them.
Tiana’s true role model potential doesn’t shine through until later in the film, however. During the climax, the villainous Dr. Facilier offers her a deal. If she will hand over the talisman he is using to control the voodoo spirits at his disposal -- thus letting him take all New Orleans’ souls -- he will restore her to her human state. If not, she will remain a frog, as she has been since kissing Prince Naveen (also in amphibian form at the time). Along with restoration, Facilier promises Tiana her restaurant, and a chance to disprove people who believed she should stay a menial laborer because of her background.
Tiana is tempted, but ultimately refuses, even after Facilier brings up her father never realized his dreams, either. In a crucial flashback, she is reminded of the love between herself and her parents, and the good times they had as a family. “My daddy…had what he needed,” she snaps at Facilier. “He never lost sight of what’s really important, and neither will I.” When confronted with the opportunity to obtain everything she’s worked so hard for, Tiana puts her own selfish desires aside for the good of others. She privileges love over material riches, and embodies a valuable lesson about the difference between what we want and what we truly need.
Top Five Worst Disney Female Role Models
#5: Megara, Hercules
For every best, there is a worst, and for every positive Disney role model on this list, there is a negative one. Megara of Hercules gets the fifth spot on the “worst” list. One of Meg’s most famous quotes is, “I’m a damsel; I’m in distress; I can handle this.” Many women embrace the quote as an embodiment of strong womanhood. Megara is strong, but the way she uses her strength -- or doesn’t -- is a problem. Most of her activity involves flirting with Hercules or other male characters. She tries to help Hercules out of Hades’ schemes, but doesn’t take much of an active role. As Doug Walker, the Nostalgia Critic, said in his review of Hercules, Megara is “just one-liners and a sneer.” Other than snarky comebacks and sensual moves similar to Esmeralda’s, she doesn’t have much going for her. She seems to teach that feminine strength is more about talking the talk than walking the walk. Her behavior also hints that girls and women should rely on sensuality to get what they want if smart or witty dialogue doesn’t work.
Furthermore, Megara is a prime example of a woman who portrays independence incorrectly. Viewers learn she sold her soul to Hades to save a former boyfriend’s life. Though her motives were noble, she makes unnecessary blunders after the fact. Specifically, she betrays Hercules rather than telling him the truth. She also allows Hades to continually berate her, when viewers know she could easily tell him off, if not escape. Megara’s independence keeps her from reaching out for help, being honest, or standing up for herself. The best way to care for yourself, her character indicates, is to fight your battles alone, often in ways that hurt others.
#4: Elsa, Frozen
Queen Elsa has become an icon, as has her ballad “Let It Go.” Yet evidence suggests this powerful queen is not the best role model for girls aspiring to act like royalty. Unlike Megara, Elsa has a fully developed character and complex motives for her actions. As Queen of Arendelle, she tries to lead her country as best she can. However, Elsa carries plenty of unresolved baggage. “All you know is how to shut people out,” her younger sister Anna accuses -- and she’s right. Elsa has learned the best way to cope with her problems is running away. Perhaps as a child, this could be blamed on her parents, who effectively taught Elsa that ice powers made her a monster. As an adult though, Elsa has more freedom to reach out to Anna and others. She could overcome her fears, but doesn’t try. Instead she remains stuck in the past, despite declaring in song that her pain is behind her.
Whether she means to be or not, Elsa is cold and uncommunicative. At times this comes across as self-righteousness, like when she refuses to give Anna her blessing to marry Hans, but won’t consider why her sister needs love so badly. Although Anna offers her help and support, Elsa persists in a state of learned helplessness. “I can’t control the curse,” she laments. In this state, she continually labels herself a monster and takes on more guilt for iced-over Arendelle than she should. Like Megara, Elsa teaches covering up problems or fighting them alone equals strength. More disturbingly she, more than any damsel in distress, seems to embrace helplessness.
#3: Merida, Brave
When Brave debuted, Merida was heralded as another strong princess, comparable to Mulan or Pocahontas. She’s an adventurous tomboy with an independent streak a mile wide, traits that could become positive if nurtured and tempered well. Unfortunately, Merida has not yet learned the concepts of power under control or grace under pressure. Her desire to buck the royal system, especially arranged marriage, is understandable. Yet she constantly throws teenage tantrums and disrespects her parents while trying to escape the system. She refuses to consider her mother Queen Elinor’s point of view, although the latter is a wise woman with great advice to give.
Merida is also selfish to the point of hurting others. She follows the will o’ the wisp and becomes involved with a local witch without any thought toward consequences. Offered the chance to “change her fate,” she jumps on it without considering what such changes would mean for others. Anger at her mother fuels Merida’s decision to leave her a tart she knows will somehow change the queen and may harm her. Merida and Elinor spend the rest of the film cleaning up Merida’s messes. Throughout Brave, Merida acts the part of rebellious teen, a role Disney viewers have seen countless times. Thus she hurts her movie’s plot, but more importantly, her character. She teaches girls the best way to exhibit strength and change the world is through recklessness and insistence on their own way.
#2: Aurora, Sleeping Beauty
The best way to describe Aurora is “vapid.” Some Disney fans might say she has an excuse since she’s asleep for the second half of her movie. However, it’s what Aurora does -- or does not do -- when awake that makes her a negative role model. She spends her time staring out the cottage window daydreaming, or dancing and singing in the woods. She doesn’t engage in anything productive, except a halfhearted attempt to pick berries in one scene. To make things worse, her dialogue doesn’t indicate any interest in the world around her or what she could learn from it. What little dialogue there is seems stilted, airy, and boring. Aurora apparently has no interests outside dreaming of a prince, making her the definition of what many princess critics dislike.
Unlike Tiana, who resists temptation, Aurora constantly gives in to it because it looks enticing. She shares an intimate encounter with Prince Phillip, not knowing who he is. Young viewers are meant to understand Phillip is Aurora’s true love, which is supposed to justify the encounter. In real life though, a girl who behaved as Aurora did could find herself seriously hurt. Later on, Aurora pricks her finger on the spindle, despite the good fairies’ caution to stay away from the spinning wheel. It could be argued Aurora was just fulfilling Maleficent’s prophecy, but she still had the choice to listen and think through her actions. “If it feels good, do it,” is this princess’ motto -- one that could endanger the real children that parents work to protect.
#1: Ariel, The Little Mermaid
Of the negative role models among Disney heroines, Ariel might be the worst. She embodies many negative traits and behaviors of other heroines on this list but takes them to a different level. Not only does she become engaged to a man she just met, she’s willing to change her entire life for a man with whom she has never had a conversation. The Little Mermaid wants us to believe Ariel’s encounter with Eric is love at first sight, but she doesn’t even set eyes on him for long. She embraces lust, not love.
Like Merida, Ariel acts the part of a rebellious teen. Granted, her father is overprotective and prejudicial in his response to humans, but Ariel refuses to consider his point of view. She takes her rebelliousness further than Merida, though. She throws herself straight into the grasp of Ursula, knowing the sea witch is evil and knowing her actions will break her father’s heart. Ariel is willing to practically sell herself for an idealized future viewers know Ursula will do everything possible to sabotage. When Ursula recaptures Ariel, the mermaid tearfully apologizes and says she “didn’t know” what she was getting into. But Ursula clearly spelled it out for her; she knew and entered an unscrupulous contract anyway.
Finally, Ariel does not learn anything from her travails. As Doug Walker puts it in his “Disneycember” review, “She whines and complains, and in the end, she’s rewarded for it.” Indeed, Ariel spends much of her film whining or complaining about her desire to be human. She seems to appreciate nothing in her current world. She shows regard for no one and often puts those she claims to care about, such as Sebastian and Flounder, in danger. Rewarding her behavior teaches nothing other than, if girls whine and rebel enough, they will eventually wear others down and get their own way. “I’m sixteen years old; I’m not a child,” she insists. Ariel’s behavior suggests she is in fact the most immature and childish of the entire Disney heroine lineup.
Blake, Meredith. “Jon Stewart Slams Disney’s Makeover of ‘Brave’ Princess Merida.” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2013.
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