In 2003, singing group sensation The Cheetah Girls from Disney Channel’s movie of the same name defied the traditional damsel in distress storyline when they covered i5’s girl power anthem, “Cinderella.” With lyrics like, “Don’t wanna depend on no one else, I’d rather rescue myself,” and “I can slay my own dragons…my knight in shining armor is me,” they put a new spin on girls and women’s expectations, proving they can thrive on their own. But that was just one example of how Disney movies can portray their girl characters in a positive light, with many Disney heroines breaking free from the norm.
Update September 10, 2023: In honor of D23 happening, this article has been updated with even more powerful and inspiring women in Disney films, including a recent fan favorite.
Throughout the years, Disney has expanded its range of characters, thereby demonstrating the importance of representation. They have only been getting better with representation in recent years. Once upon a time, Disney characters would follow the conventional route of a helpless white princess and her handsome Prince Charming, but more recently, we’ve seen princesses of different backgrounds, princesses who can kick butt and stand up for themselves, and some even without a love interest. The House of Mouse has also added women superheroes, some with superpowers and others just plainly empowering as normal people. Throughout Disney and Pixar Animation’s movies, here are the most empowering women characters ranked.
15 Helen Parr / Elastigirl – The Incredibles (2004)
Disney is known for keeping fictional moms out of the story, but even so, many mothers have appeared in their movies. Helen, aka Elastigirl, is the mother of the Parr family, sticking to her parental duties like giving the baby a bath, picking up the kids from school, making sure they eat their vegetables, and using her stretchy body to protect her superhuman children from the bomb explosion incoming to the private jet she was flying.
It’s a superpower on its own to be a mother, but she is a mother to three superpowered kids. Throughout The Incrediblesand The Incredibles 2, Elastigirl affectionately plays both the mother figure and saves lives and protects her city, so much so that in the second film, her heroic endeavors were on every TV channel. She isn’t just a superhero; she’s a supermom.
14 Mama Imelda – Coco (2017)
If we talk about women who are tough even after their death, Mama Imelda’s name is bound to come up. In the Disney Pixar movie Coco, Mama Imelda is the matriarch of the Imelda family, and she remains that even in her death. Loved and respected by all her family members, Mama Imelda is a tough woman who started the family business and brought all her children by herself when her husband went missing.
She has a lot of resentment towards her husband for never coming back home, but when she learns that he was killed and did not leave by his own accord, she forgives him, and they spend their days together in the afterlife. She is tough on her family members, but she is also very loving and protective of them.
13 Megara – Hercules (1997)
Megara, popularly known as Meg, is the deuteragonist of the 1997 Disney movie Hercules. Megara, as a character, is not all bubbly and positive like a lot of Disney women protagonists of the time but instead is sassy and cynical. She had a pretty traumatic past and even had to be an unwilling minion to Hades for a while for selling her soul to him. But she is still compassionate, smart, and a great companion for Hercules. One of the greatest things about Meg is that she does not bow down to anybody, and she is adept at putting people in their place when the need arises, making her one of the most iconic Disney characters ever.
12 Tiana – The Princess and the Frog (2009)
At the beginning of The Princess and the Frog, viewers get a taste of just how different Tiana and Charlotte’s lives are. Where Disney’s first Black princess lived in a small, poor community, her best friend hailed from a luxurious neighborhood and basically got everything she wanted. But growing up in poverty didn’t stop Tiana from achieving her dreams (and neither did becoming a frog).
Tiana was so determined to get her own restaurant that she worked multiple jobs, leading one of your friends to even insist that all she ever does is work. But as Tiana stated, “Every little penny counts,” and her hard work earned her own restaurant, fit for a princess, which she named Tiana’s Palace.
11 Mirabel Madrigal – Encanto (2021)
The Madrigal family from Disney’s 2021 movie Encanto has its fair share of powerful women. Luisa Madrigal has superhuman strength, Isabela Madrigal can bloom greenery and flowers anywhere, Dolores Madrigal has supper hearing, Pepa Madrigal can control the weather with her mood, and Julieta Madrigal can heal anyone’s ailments with her cooking. But this entry is about none of them. Instead, we will talk about the one member of the Madrigal family who does not have any magical powers, Mirabel.
The main protagonist of the movie, Mirabel, is the only member of the Madrigal family other than her grandmother, Alba Madrigal, who does not get a magical power. It makes her have a really strained relationship with her grandmother. But in the end, through resilience and compassion, Mirabel is the one who is able to restore the broken family home and bring the family together once again, even her estranged uncle Bruno. Mirabel is a strong young woman who, despite not having any superpowers, becomes the strongest character of the movie.
10 Ember – Elemental (2023)
The newest character is Ember from Disney and Pixar’s Elemental. Ember has the weight of the world on her, having to honor the life her parents made for her while being torn to not only follow her own dreams of being an artist but also be with someone she loves despite her family’s prejudice towards it. Ember is constantly thinking of others, rarely putting herself first.
Even when she seems to have let everyone down, she still springs into action to do the right thing. Ember, of course, being fire burns bright, and that passion draws in people towards her, be it her romantic partner Wade or her family seeing her for who she truly wants to be. It is no wonder Elemental has broken out with audiences.
9 Merida – Brave (2012)
Disney Pixar’s first and only princess, Merida in Brave, was anything but traditional royalty. Much to her mother’s dismay, the fiery redhead would rather shoot a bow and arrow than find herself a husband. When an archery contest is set up to win Merida’s hand in marriage, the Scottish teen voluntarily puts herself into the competition, delivering the memorable line, “I am Merida, first-born descendant of Clan DunBroch, and I’ll be shooting for my own hand,” allowing Merida to express her true feelings, show off her awesome archery skills, and prove to her family that she chooses freedom over an arranged marriage.
8 Rapunzel – Tangled (2010)
Rapunzel is an old story originally written by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. Disney’s modern version, Tangled, took the helpless princess trapped in a tower and gave her agency – and a frying pan. Rapunzel starts her journey trapped in her tower (after a bit of backstory), but after the charming thief Flynn enters her tower to steal a crown, she promptly knocks him out and hides him.
When defeating a thief doesn’t convince her “mother”, Gothel, to let her leave the tower, she tricks Gothel into leaving for a few days and leaves on her own. She also coerces Flynn into taking her to see the floating lights that she has watched and wondered about all her life – showing that this classic princess story can be well adapted into modern times and have a princess carve her own path forward instead of being rescued.
7 Esmeralda – The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Esmeralda is one of the most underrated women in Disney, yet she is one of the best role models to have. She is quick and smart, knows how to defend herself, and is one of the best activists on this list. She saves Quasimodo from an angry crowd and later sings a song about wanting to help others – specifically outcasts.
Esmeralda speaks for justice and gives the little she has to help those in need. She is no damsel in distress but actually saves both Quasimodo and Phoebus more than once. Bold and unafraid, she even spits in the face of her would-be murderer, bravely facing death rather than giving up her freedom or giving in to Frollo’s disturbing offer.
6 Judy Hopps – Zootopia (2016)
Zootopia is an amazing children’s movie that gained a lot of love worldwide because of its central duo, Nick Wilde and Judy Hopps. The movie is extremely entertaining and has a tension-filled climax scene that made all of us bite our nails in anticipation. But the main attraction of the movie is little rabbit cop Judy, who, even after facing discrimination in the academy, does not give up and graduates top of her class to become a cop.
She is brave, fair, and compassionate to a fault and does not let her trust in others waiver because of preconceived notions and prejudices. She is not biased against Nick for being a fox, and neither is she biased against carnivorous animals when some of them turn rabid. Her willpower and sense of justice help her catch the final antagonist of the movie, while she also acknowledges her own prejudices that she needs to grow beyond showing that it is okay to admit to growing.
5 Raya – Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)
Raya is one of Disney’s most recent princesses who embarked on a quest to retrieve a legendary dragon that would restore her land of Kumandra and its people. Raya and the Last Dragon features the eloquent words, “It may feel impossible, but sometimes, you just have to take the first step, even before you’re ready,” inspired by a similar Nelson Mandela quote. Not only is Raya a boss lady martial artist warrior, but she also never leaves behind a friend and learns that team work makes the dream work.
Like Moana and Merida, Raya managed to earn herself a Disney princess title without a prince, proving to young girls that they can all be labeled princesses, even without a white knight. It’s also important that Raya is Disney’s first southeast Asian princess and was voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, who is Vietnamese. Raya is one of the best idols for representation in Disney heroes.
4 Elsa – Frozen (2013)
Elsa has become a pop culture icon since her debut in Frozen. Her song “Let It Go” is an anthem for empowerment, as it is the moment Elsa realizes she does not need to hide who she is and can fully embrace who she is. After years of living in fear of her power, Elsa finally becomes who she was meant to be. There is a reason Elsa has become so popular among audiences, particularly young girls who gravitate to the message of accepting yourself as you are.
3 Moana – Moana (2016)
Moana had a special relationship with the ocean and knew there was a mission out there waiting for her. Despite her parents’ wishes, she listened to her own instincts, seeking a better life for her people on the island. While Moana’s journey to save Tahiti is accompanied by the demigod Maui, the heroine essentially does the dirty work by herself.
With Moana, Disney not only showed that their women characters can accomplish great things, but also that they do not need a prince or love interest of any kind. In fact, even with a male sidekick, Moana was the first (non-Pixar) Disney princess to not have a prince and became the ruler of her people on her own.
2 Nani – Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Lilo & Stitch’s Nani Pelaki is a walking embodiment of “not all heroes wear capes.” Where some Disney heroines obtain magical powers and go on knightly journeys, Nani was an everyday teenager juggling work, boys, and, of course, taking care of her unhinged younger sister and her new troublesome pet. After a rainstorm kills their parents, Nani is appointed to become Lilo’s guardian, which is met with issues along the way, especially given her young age.
Throughout the movie, we see that Nani puts her little sister before everything, and once Lilo disappears, she willingly encounters three suspicious aliens, beating one of them — Stitch — with a branch, showing how determined she is to find her sister. Nani is a young woman put in a situation she didn’t ask for, but she quickly steps up to become a responsible adult and must bear the weight of expectations yet will do whatever it takes for her sister.
1 Mulan – Mulan (1998)
In Mulan, the request for male fighters didn’t stop the eponymous heroine from donning a man’s attire and changing her name, all to keep her elderly father from serving the nation. The story is based on an ancient Chinese tale that is over a thousand years old. In one of Disney’s most inspirational numbers, General Shang requires each man to climb up a pole and retrieve an arrow. Set to the tune of Donny Osmond’s absolute banger, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”, the montage displays the struggles each soldier endured shooting arrows, snatching fish from a pond and trekking their own body weight.
Like the rest of the men, Mulan struggles to complete each task, but when General Shang labels her unsuited for the war and sends her home, she sees it as an opportunity to show that she can do it. Through the chill-inducing sequence, Mulan, who is about to give up and go home, is able to climb to the top of the pole, succeeding just as the sun rises. She confidently tosses the arrow right in front of Shang’s tent, making it the first thing he sees that morning. And if that wasn’t convincing enough, Mulan’s heroic actions save China, leaving the city – and even the emperor – to bow down to her. Now a hero and, more importantly, having become comfortable with herself and who she really is, Mulan is the most empowering woman in Disney/Pixar’s films.