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.
But some children's movies have handled introversion beautifully. The 1996 film adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda retains the book's quietly mischievous heroine, and in fact, the entire movie is an ode to introversion. The two main protagonists, Matilda and her mild-mannered teacher Miss Honey are both reserved, bookish people whose quiet confidence and steady strength win out in the end. The film's villains are grotesque caricatures of extroversion whose garish cruelty ultimately proves their own downfall.
The 1993 film adaptation of The Secret Garden offers another nuanced portrayal of an introverted female lead. Ten-year-old Mary Lennox is shy and awkward, and at first she comes across as unlikeable. However, the film explores the reasons behind her initial surliness, and then depicts her transformation into a more generous and open-minded—but still ultimately introverted—character.
This sensitive treatment of introversion is all too rare in children's films, and it's too bad, because heroines like Matilda and Mary Lennox remind us that you don't need to be the loudest person in the room to be strong and interesting. Quiet strength is subtle and all too easily mistaken for meekness—and any female character who even appears timid or uncertain will inevitably face criticism for playing into antiquated gender stereotypes.
To be fair, it's hard enough for girls to be represented at all on screen. Pixar has featured some spunky female sidekicks, but it took them 17 years to introduce a real heroine in Brave. And the number of speaking female characters in G-rated films in general has hovered at around 30 percent since 1990. It makes sense that given the rare chance to develop a female protagonist, studios would want to present her as an unmistakable paragon of strength and independence, which usually means making her extroverted. Because they are so outnumbered, the modern girl protagonist must really play two roles: her character within the story, but also the role of ambassador for her gender, defining what it means to be a 'strong modern female.'
And in a way, a female lead like Merida from Brave also acts as an ambassador for her studio. Pixar was under fire for favoring male heroes, and Merida's character probably resulted as much from a public relations need as from any altruistic desire to level the playing field for girls on screen.
Ultimately, Merida matters more for what she is—Pixar's first girl hero—than for who she is as a character. The introduction of more female leads in children's films is a great first step, but it would be even better to see Pixar and other studios take a chance on girl characters with more complex, varied personalities. The feisty heroine may have been groundbreaking 20 years ago, but today, she's nearly as predictable as the submissive girls of the early Disney years. The really radical move for a studio now would be to take a risk on an introverted heroine whose quiet strength and resourcefulness save the day.