One of the main reasons I dye my hair red is because I love Ariel from The Little Mermaid. I’ve always been too embarrassed to admit that I idolise a Disney princess, because they’re usually held up as the antithesis of what we want women and girls to be. They languish in towers, waiting to be rescued; they’re only interested in falling in love; they’re acted upon, rather than acting for themselves… right?
Well, apparently, no. Movie Pilot pointed out that there is one Disney princess who most certainly acts for herself: Mulan has the highest body count of all characters in Disney films. Higher than Captain Hook, higher than the Queen of Hearts, higher than Hades who is the literal God of the Underworld. She buried 2,000 Huns under an avalanche and blew up one of the few survivors with fireworks – that’s 1995 dead Huns and the whole of China saved.
Disney princesses get a kicking, but there are quite a lot of feminist messages in them that I unthinkingly absorbed as a child. Take my beloved Ariel. She was an inquisitive, stubborn, dreamy girl, who broke all the rules in order to get what she wanted. Mulan obviously saved China, but she was also willing to sacrifice herself to save her father, and found a place for herself in a world that only wanted pretty, delicate women. Belle was unapologetically bookish and, when faced with a monster shouting in her face, she just shouted right back. Jasmine ran away from her oppressive life and refused to marry a man she didn’t love. Pocahontas was brave and curious, and went against her entire tribe in order to follow her heart. These films aren’t perfect by a long shot, but these are a lot of good messages for a pre-teen Amy to have absorbed, and they have definitely made me into the wilful, tenacious feminist I am today.
Gloria Steinem loved Wonder Woman so much she covered the first edition of Ms. magazine with her back in 1972 and penned an essay about how great she was
I’m not the only feminist to be inspired by seemingly innocuous things in pop culture. In fact, when I asked around, women were falling over themselves to rave about the characters that meant the most to them. Books were mentioned again and again: Anne of Green Gables, Jo from Little Women, Jane Eyre, Hermione Granger – women loved them for showing that they can be headstrong, they can chase their dreams, they can be angry, they can trust their own judgement even when no one else does. Kate still loves George from The Famous Five for “Doing everything the boys could, often better, and fighting against anyone who treated her 'like a girl”, whereas Lizzie read Pride And Prejudice aged 11 and “loved Lizzie Bennet – stubborn, non-conformist and not afraid of a muddy petticoat”.
For the teenagers who didn’t spend their spare time reading classical novels, there was TV. Topanga from Boy Meets World, who once proudly described her vision of a feminist utopia to her bewildered male teacher; Buffy, who saved the world while still caring about her outfits; Sarah Jane Smith who, Michelle said, “took no crap from anyone, including the Doctor”. There were some surprising ones (Tia and Tamera from Sister, Sister, Helga from Hey Arnold!, Angelica from Rugrats) and some less surprising ones, like Lisa Simpson, who Laura said “taught me it's OK to be clever and to like learning as well as playing with dolls and having a pink bike”. Meanwhile, Gloria Steinem loved Wonder Woman so much she covered the first edition of Ms. magazine with her back in 1972 and penned an essay about how great she was.
Then there’s music. There are the Spice Girls, obviously, but also artists like Madonna, Beyoncé and Pink. Christina Aguilera and Lil’ Kim yelling about slut-shaming in Can’t Hold Us Down was the first thing to leave me furious at society’s double standards, whereas senior editor Marisa credits listening to Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill on repeat with “showing me that female anger can be powerful”. And it is powerful – multiple women cited Princess Leia as an inspiration, and during the Women’s March in January many young women had signs with Carrie Fisher’s glaring face on the front. Leia and these other characters have become sources of strength for many now-angry women who are simply refusing to take the world’s shit any more.
Our job now is to create characters that make sure that all future little girls can be as inspired as we were
And isn’t that amazing? Isn’t it beautiful to look around a room of strong, clever, tenacious women and realise that you can trace their drive to keep going and to keep fighting back to a Saturday morning spent watching cartoons, or curled up in a chair with a book? They say that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. These women saw they could be more, and so they became so.
The way our media treats women is getting better – Disney and Pixar have been creating feminist hero after feminist hero, with films like The Princess And The Frog, Frozen, The Incredibles, Inside Out and Moana, and Wonder Woman has been incredible – but our job now should be to take it further. We need more women and girls of colour, more disabled women and girls, more sexualities, more genders, more ways to succeed and more ways to fail but get right back up again and keep trying – because that’s what awesome women do. Our job now is to create characters that make sure that all future little girls can be as inspired as we were – because, after all, isn’t that what Hermione Granger would do?