An Ode to Under-Appreciated Disney Heroines

Disney has created more than just princesses, you know.

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Under appreciated Disney heroines

If you’ve ever visited the Internet, I’m sure this statement is familiar to you: “Disney princesses aren’t good role models!” 

I have a lot of opinions about this statement, but my primary fault with it is that it often represents a more general accusation: the idea that Disney females aren’t good role models.

I can, of course, see why people think this. After all, the Disney women who get most of the public attention are, in fact, the princesses – girls whose strength of character are often overshadowed by their romance-driven plots and pretty dresses. And this is really too bad.

I could write a whole separate post about how the Disney princesses are more than their dresses and love lives, but today I’d like to give some attention to the under-appreciated Disney heroines who are smart, strong, independent, confident, and realistic. Whenever I see a complaint about all Disney girls being unattainably beautiful and un-relatable, I just want to yell, “They’re not! You’re just watching the wrong movies!!”

1. Captain Amelia, Treasure Planet

“And doctor, again with the greatest possible respect, zip your howling screamer.”

Do you SEE this picture?? It says it all.

I don’t even know where to begin with Captain Amelia from Treasure Planet. For one thing, she’s one of only two women in this entire movie, but she establishes herself from her first appearance as the most intimidating, impressive, and undeniably badass member of the cast – and that’s probably saying a lot in a movie about space pirates.

Captain Amelia is the perfect representation of everything you could want in a powerful female character – she’s aggressively intelligent, resourceful, and fearless, and her ability to shut down anyone who crosses her with a devilishly sarcastic one-liner is nothing less than inspiring.

I feel like “strong girl boss” movie characters are often written to be nasty, unemotional, and even selfish, but Captain Amelia’s strength comes, refreshingly, from a place of well-established competence as a leader. She’s a breath of fresh air.

2. Audrey, Atlantis: The Lost Empire

“‘Bout time someone hit him. I’m just sorry it wasn’t me.”

Bet you thought I was going to pick Kida from this movie, didn’t you? Kida may have been unacceptably omitted from the official Disney Princess lineup, but Audrey Ramirez is, to me, the most grossly unacknowledged Disney woman, especially considering what people seem to be begging for in a female character.

Not a princess? Check. This girl is not only the youngest crew member of the expedition to find Atlantis, she’s also the Chief Engineer. No romantic subplot? Check. The quirky, eclectic, positively badass ensemble supporting cast has a charming friendship reminiscent of TV’s Firefly that doesn’t need an unnecessary love triangle to appeal to the audience.

Most importantly, Audrey represents everything a strong woman can be: she’s intelligent and skeptical, sarcastic and sassy, compassionate towards the people she cares about yet ruthless when she needs to be.

3. Nani, Lilo & Stitch

Lilo: “Did you lose your job because of Stitch and me?”

Nani: “Nah. The manager’s a vampire. He wanted me to join his legion of the undead.”

Frozen, Imma let you finish, but Nani and Lilo are the greatest pair of Disney sisters of all time.

Nani is, to me, possibly the most realistic girl Disney has ever created. She literally spends every waking moment trying to figure out how to provide for her eccentric younger sister when she’s thrown into the role of “mom” after their parents untimely death.

When life throws problem after problem at Nani, she doesn’t sing about it or get help from any kind of magical friend – she screams into a pillow like a normal human and then relentlessly goes after the problem to fix it herself. Also, the scene where she’s dragging Lilo and Stitch around town looking for a new job, making up a new resume/interests for each manager, is the most relatable college girl struggle I’ve ever seen animated.

I’m just saying, if Nani had treated Lilo the way Elsa treated Anna, Lilo would have been taken away by the social worker before Stitch was even created.

4. Colette, Ratatouille

“No, you listen! I just want you to know exactly who you are dealing with! How many women do you see in this kitchen? Only me. Why do you think that is? Because haute cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid, old, men. Rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world. But still I’m here!”

I know, Colette is technically from Pixar Animation Studios, not Disney. Whatever. They’re owned by the same company, and she’s too awesome to not mention.

Colette is the only girl in the movie. She’s the best chef in the kitchen (not counting Remy). She doesn’t take crap from anybody. Yeah, there’s a romantic subplot about her and Linguine, which honestly doesn’t add a whole lot to the movie, but it also doesn’t compromise her strong personality or alter her motivations.

Additionally, Colette’s passion for her career is inspiring – you can tell from the way she talks about food that she doesn’t just like cooking, she respects it. Everyone should be so lucky to find a career that they’re this excited about; it’s that passion that drives you to claw your way to the top like Colette.

Tiana may be the resident Disney cooking icon (and she too is awesome), but let’s be real: she never pinned someone’s arm to a counter with a knife.

5. Esmeralda, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

“You mistreat this poor boy the same way you mistreat my people. You speak of justice, yet you are cruel to those most in need of your help!”

You might be more familiar with Esmeralda than the other ladies because she was born during the Disney Renaissance that I mentioned earlier. That said, she still doesn’t get as much attention as she deserves.

I hate that Esmerelda gets reduced to a romantic plot device because her initial role as defender and advocate of compassion and justice is so important. Throughout the course of the film, she publicly defies her city’s corrupt justice system, beats the captain of the guard in a sword fight using a lamp, saves the male protagonists from death multiple times, and convinces a man who has been branded the “Ugliest Face in all of Paris” that he’s worth something.

To me, however, the most inspiring quality of Esmeralda’s is her selflessness. She literally lives on the street, is persecuted by the entire city for being a gypsy, and spends the entire movie running from a sadistic, murderous rapist, and yet her big solo song is about wanting help for the less fortunate. Serious cool points.

So why do these characters get overlooked?

Well, not counting Colette, most of them come from films that were, quite frankly, ahead of their time.

The themes presented by The Hunchback of Notre Dame were so dark in comparison to the rest of the “Disney Renaissance” period that the movie tends to get lost in the nostalgic adoration projected on films such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.

The remaining three films mentioned above all came out of a weird, transitional phase that occurred in the early 2000s, in which Disney tried to appeal to a wider audience by stepping away from musical fairy-tales in favor of more action/adventure-driven original stories, most of which were ahead of their time and thus were relatively unsuccessful.

After those films, Disney went back to doing what they do best: pushing princesses. But as you can see, princesses aren’t the only girls Disney has created! Let’s give the other inspiring women lost in obscurity the love they deserve.

What do you think?

Who is your favorite Disney non-princess? Do you think the princesses are overrated? (I don’t, but I’m curious.) Let me know in the comments!

5 thoughts on “An Ode to Under-Appreciated Disney Heroines”

  1. Great article! I must confess I have never seen Atlantis, but Audrey sounds like a total badass.
    I also love that you included Nani. Tbh, she’s my favorite part of the movie and her ‘relationship’ is one of the most realistic. By the way, Esmeralda was totally ahead of her time. Such an underrated character in an underrated movie.
    Just one thing to point out: no outfits? 🙁 I’d seriously love some inspiration from these gals!

  2. Great article! Glad you included Nani, her struggles are relatable not only for college girls but for a lot of girls who face economic problems in their family or have to take in more responsbilities bigger than the once planned before in her life. I mean she brings the income to the house she is both mom and dad!!

    Also, can we talk about how Mulan is not actually a princess in her story, but is considered one in terms of marketing? Not complaining, because I love her to death and want to see her included everywhere, but it’s especially interesting considering there are so many other non-royal Disney heroines not included in that roster.


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