The spunky-gal lead has become as much of a kids-movie cliche as the shrinking violets of yesteryear. Time for a change.
Feisty, extroverted female characters have become the norm in children's films, as movie studios seek to overthrow the "passive princess" cliché of the early Disney years. After a long history of relying on docile heroines in classics like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, Disney introduced more assertive female protagonists like the headstrong Belle and the sword-fighting Mulan in the '90s. Last year, Pixar finally debuted its first female lead in Brave, which won an Oscar for best animated film a few weeks ago. Merida has all the traits we have come to expect of the modern children's movie heroine: she's plucky, outgoing, and ready for battle.
Movie studios should be commended for abandoning damsel-in-distress stereotypes. But in promoting this spunky, extroverted kind of heroine, Hollywood is placing femininity in another box. Movies like Brave imply that to be strong and independent, a girl must be outgoing and have a fiery personality. To be brave, she must wield a sword and dive into battle. This kind of extrovert is admirable, but can she be relatable to girls who are naturally more reserved and thoughtful, yet brave in their own way?
Girls need protagonists they can relate to, and every girl is different. The heroine that appeals to one girl may not appeal to another. When I was a girl, I loved Disney movies. I admired Ariel's determination to escape the confines of her undersea life, and I rooted for Jasmine as she defied the controlling Jafar. But as much as I enjoyed watching these heroines on screen, they felt ultimately unfamiliar as characters. Their outwardly plucky personalities felt so foreign to my more reserved tendencies. While I was strong in my own way, I knew I would never be as demonstrative as those onscreen princesses.
As an adult, I know that's okay, but it's important for the next generation of introspective little girls to know that they don't need loud personalities to be strong people. It's a shame that many children's films, even ones determined to present a tough, modern heroine, end up equating confidence with extroversion.
Children's literature, on the other hand, is filled with quiet, clever heroines. Roald Dahl's Matilda, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and Meg Murry from Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time come to mind. These beloved characters are not extroverts, but they are also not wallflowers; each girl draws upon her wits, imagination, and quiet inner confidence to overcome immense obstacles.
Of course, it's much harder to portray introversion on-screen. In a book, writers can delve into the private thoughts of introverted characters using pages of narration and minimal dialogue. In film, however, it's more difficult to get inside introverted characters' heads. In movies, as in real life, shyness can come across as unfriendliness—or even worse, as boring.