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.