Latest generation of animated heroines gives us hope for a better world

Latest generation of animated heroines gives us hope for a better world for our daughters


If you were born in the 80’s like me, you probably grew up watching Ariel flipping about in the great blue sea in The Little Mermaid, or Belle canoodling up to a dangerous criminal in the form of a ‘beast’ in Beauty and the Beast.

We didn’t exactly have the most diverse ensemble of heroines from the platter of Hollywood hits to choose from: Aurora was thin, long-haired and blonde; Rapunzel was thin, long-haired and blonde; Cinderella was thin, long-haired and blonde and Cher was thin, long-haired and blonde. (As in, Alicia Silverstone’s character in Clueless).

Sure, there were a few exceptions — Snow White had short, black hair. Pocahontas was Native-American, Mulan was Chinese, and Jasmine was racially ambiguous.

Yet, all these girls are celebrated for their indistinguishable docility, stoicism, and subservience. They are sweet-natured, kind, generous, and put others’ needs before their own.

Their spiritual vivacity comes from fulfilling their parents’ wishes and demonstrating an unhealthy level of filial piety. All these characters are simply teaching young girls how to be the ideal, good girls.

And, at the end of the day, they’re all basically the same kind of beautiful: their faces are symmetrical, heart-shaped, perfectly proportionate pouted lips and they have large, almond-shaped eyes. They almost always resemble The Instagram Face, before it was called The Instagram Face

It’s with this reflection of my own childhood, that I celebrate releases serving us new role models — giving us hope that the world might be a better place for girls finding their place.

If our girls are given more examples of the various types of women they can be, perhaps they will operate with more fortitude and confidence in a world that remains actively more challenging for them than the males around them.

Here are just a few stellar examples of recent films you can watch (either alone, or with your daughters, nieces, granddaughters, neighbourhood friends) that will bring you hope about the future of representation on the screen.

Encanto (2021)

Mirabel is a typical teenager. At 15, she is the youngest daughter of proud parents who have ‘special gifts’ — in fact, the entire family have special powers – except Mirabel. Her mother can make food that can heal any ailment. Her sister can lift with superhuman strength. Her cousin has super-hearing. Another cousin can shape-shift.

Yet Mirabel is ‘normal’ — described by the film’s director, Jared Bush as “imperfect and weird and quirky, but also deeply emotional and incredibly empathetic.”

This story will make you pretty teary (I can’t recall an animated kids film that hasn’t made me cry) but it’s because the filmmakers know how to get to us — these stories and characters are so undeniably relatable. But above all, our heroine, Mirabel, is not drawn with an impossibly small waist, and zero body fat. She’s also the first ‘Disney Princess’ who wears glasses. I can’t believe we’ve had to wait until 2022 to have a bit more of a realistic depiction of how girls look in today’s world. It’s still not perfect, but it’s improving…

Turning Red (2022)

Speaking of firsts, this Toronto-based comedy, written and directed by Chinese-Canadian animator Domee Shi, marks one of the first ever Asian-female animated heroines.

It tells the story of 13-year old Mei Lee, a child of immigrant parents who run a temple in Toronto. She’s a passionate young girl who is torn between being a dutiful daughter while wanting to live the ‘normal’ life of a teen growing up in a western country – going to Karaoke with friends, hanging out with them at the mall, going to see their favourite boy-band, 4*Town, wanting to date boys.

As an Asian woman who shares almost an identical life-situation as this heroine, this movie was incredibly overwhelming — both for its lighthearted, wholesome comedy, and for the plain reason that it exists – and that I had to wait until my mid-thirties to see a film which made me feel seen. 

Back to the Outback (2021)

The main thing you need to know about this incredibly poignant and beautifully written movie is that beyond the resemblances of Taronga Zoo, Sydney Harbour, Uluru, and Steve Irwin’s family, this movie teaches young people (and adults) about the perils of lookism.

The heroine of this story is Maddie, a venomous inland taipan snake, voiced by Isla Fisher, who desperately just wants to be loved — just like Pretty Boy, the star attraction at the zoo, who is a koala (voiced by Tim Minchin – who also writes the music and original songs in the film).

Maddie just wants to find her home, and the people (I mean, snakes) who will love her for who she is. Clue car chases, zoo escapes, heart-shatteringly gorgeous songs, and a very cute great white shark (not Bruce from Finding Nemo), and you have yourself a deliciously well-made film with an incredibly important message for young people.

Don’t judge according to how something physically appears, and your family are the people (or animals) who show up when you need them.

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