Let’s talk about the ladies of 90s and early 00s Disney movies who aren’t princesses, simply because we don’t do it enough.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be Esmeralda. I didn’t want the dancing or the persecution. I just wanted to have her sense of justice and the courage of her convictions.
She’s probably still my favourite Disney lady (honestly the competition is tough, but the fact that she was my childhood hero probably pushes her over the edge).
^^ This. All of it. This is who I wanted to be when I grew up.
Not the part about getting burnt at the stake. But if someone did ever try to do that, I hoped (and I guess I still hope) to be that defiant.
Esmeralda and the Jewel song “Hands” – that’s the definition of who I want to be.
Esmeralda is a bit more complicated than the fact that she’s my hero, though. For one thing, Jason Alexander (the voice of Hugo – everyone’s favourite gargoyle) was very excited about how “voluptuous” she was, compared to, >cringe< “Pokie.”* Which is just great.
But on that note, she’s one of Disney’s women of colour characters, and she is more sexualized than a lot of the white women characters and that’s… disappointing.
In the context of just the movie she’s in, though, her being sexualized is a good thing. She uses her sexuality to earn a living. Frollo tries to slutshame her and ends up falling directly into hell at the end of the movie so, point taken, Hunchback of Notre Dame.
She’s just doing her job, man. You can’t sentence her to death by burning just because it made you confused about… not even your religious convictions, really. Just your convictions about what a great, virtuous guy you are, despite all the genocide you’re doing.
If Esmeralda had been portrayed much more “innocently,” the point the movie makes about male entitlement wouldn’t have been as strong. Esmeralda is unmistakably a sexy, sexual woman, and you still don’t get to just do whatever you want with her. It’s important. A miracle, even, that this is a major part of a movie aimed at kids. When people say they want Disney to go back to making Hunchbacks of Notre Dames instead of the “garbage” they’re doing now I always roll my eyes but in this one respect, I agree. I’d like something edgier and ultimately more valuable from Disney occasionally.
Look at how she’s this woman that men can’t stop just flat out grabbing.
… why does he think he should just sneak up behind her?
After this, of course, he earns her trust and respect and doesn’t pull this crap again.
The crown jewel is, of course:
Anyway. With Quasimodo, on the other hand – if they’re touching, she’s often the one who initiates it.
And these moments are always really sweet and thematic or whatever.
The moment that stands out where Quasi is the one rather forcefully initiating contact is, well:
I’m sure there are others, like when he’s helping her escape the cathedral or when he thinks she’s dead but the point still stands. There are clear differences in how these men act towards her, what is being coded as wrong and unacceptable, and what is demonstrated to be right.
I’m not one of the people who wishes Phoebus wasn’t in it and the romance had been between these two because one thing we are sorely lacking in this world is portrayals of male/female friendship. I think it’s perfect the way it is, though I do get the yearning for this romance too. But it’s OK. There are other women in Paris.
Anyway, especially in a movie that goes all in on male entitlement to women’s bodies and love, having a scene where Quasi gets all heartbroken and then moves on, remains her friend, doesn’t, ultimately, anyway, resent her boyfriend, saves her life from the guy killing her because he can’t have her… is cool.
The word “cool” covers it, right?
AKA, the best thing in Hercules.
Maybe most out of all other Disney ladies, at least the ones who aren’t villains, Meg is jaded, cynical, worldly.
“Well, you know how men are. They think ‘no’ means ‘yes’ and ‘get lost’ means ‘take me, I’m yours.'”
Regarding these ^, first, she’s great, second, Hercules is the cutest, and third, her stinger, “Don’t worry, Shorty here can explain it to ya later” is fantastic and deserved.
Meg is soundly mistreated throughout this movie, and a good chunk of that mistreatment is, again, this is another woman various men can’t stop grabbing. But there are also moments where the good characters are overly hostile towards her as well.
Phil is the worst to her, and some of the time his mistrust and anger towards her are justified but mostly his attitude is pretty garbage. Then Hercules himself, when Hades tells him Meg’s his henchwoman, just – like – dude, let her talk. If you’d let her talk, she’d tell you the whole stupid story in which she’s only sort of to blame, and even then, not really.
She’s sad and indentured. Come on, now.
And I know, we need him to get really really sad and feel all betrayed because we require some dramatic tension, but it’s still a little tiring when she’s right next to him and he could have just asked her to explain it to him after the fact. And if he really is the nice, understanding guy that the entire Meg relationship is painting him to be, he probably wouldn’t have blown up right away.
Then there’s Hades himself. Since Hades is the villain, everything he does is wrong so I guess it’s fine how extremely grabby he is with her the whole time.
Hades is the worst.
He’s not worse than Frollo but he is pretty bad still.
While collecting images of him seizing her by the shoulders and being gross about “curves” I remembered that he even grabs her spirit and mimes her talking to Hercules, so here’s that:
That’s – yeah. That’s not cool. Hercules’s face is the truth there, as is the part where he megasonic-punches him into the pool of the dead for this.
It’s just so extremely disrespectful. Again, he’s the villain, but Meg gets snarked at way too much by the good guys too, which is lousy.
Meg, you deserved better. Which is something Hercules knows (throughout most of the movie, anyway).
I like her as she is, but the fact that she’s all but blameless for her situation (she sold her soul to Hades with the best of intentions, after all) is something I’ll note.
If Meg was working for Hades out of a general lack of consideration for people around her and had to realize the error of her ways, like Kuzco in Emporer’s New Groove, it would just be… better. First because it would make how angry Herc gets make more sense.
More importantly, though, and this is a recurring theme here at OwlMachine, we really want, nay, need, some unlikable, morally complicated women characters in Disney movies. Honestly, Maleficent in Maleficent is a START. We need them to pick up the ball they started rolling there and go way bigger.
Maybe not way bigger. But we wouldn’t say no to a female Kuzco.
I’m not a huge watcher of Tarzan so mostly I know that Jane is a very enthusiastic zoology/art nerd. Which is cool.
I do like this one moment where she’s the one who initiates the kiss at the end and he doesn’t know what that is so she gets all embarrassed.
Like all of the ladies so far on this list, she’s here to fill the love interest role, and although I prefer the almost kind of edgy version they did with Meg – the cynical, downright jaded version of the love interest – Jane is pretty great too. She’s warm, enthusiastic, and empathetic. Pretty much impossible not to like, is Jane.
I would die for Nani.
This girl has it all: tragically dead parents, a traumatized/eccentric/probably needs some therapy little sister that she is now the sole guardian for, a violent alien dog, no job and tourist season is over, a really hyper-vigilant social worker hounding her every step, a love interest she can’t actually deal with right now, and more aliens coming to destroy her house.
Her relationship with Lilo is a typical explosive but close sister relationship, strained these days mainly due to the dead-parent thing. And also because The State keeps threatening to take Lilo away, which is very unhelpful.
There’s really nothing else to say about her, at least, not that I can think of now. How about a bullet list? That always helps when I just like something and wouldn’t change it one bit.
Nani for president:
- because she’s good to the core
- she’s doing a fantastic job considering her circumstances
- she is holding it together like a champ and I’m not even exaggerating when I say: her presence in Lilo and Stitch is always legitimately inspirational and comforting
- the part where she tells Stitch she knows he can talk, then he says, “OK, OK,” and she screams and hits him is GOLD
- David could tell you the rest
- I wish every Lilo could have a Nani looking out for them.
And that’s it for this era of Disney movies. I’d like to talk about each of them in more detail some other time because these characters are great and should get talked about more.
*I know this because of this Lindsay Ellis essay which is always worth a watch