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Heroines Are Not Created Equal

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Walt Disney is responsible for creating some of the world’s most well-known animated feature films. With classic movies such as Cinderella, Pinocchio, and Bambi, the production company has entertained the public for many generations. The heroine characters in Disney movies are all different in their own ways, and there is no cookie-cutter heroine for every movie. The difference in female characters is seen in the Disney movies Snow White, The Lion King, and Mulan. When comparing the three main female heroines in these movies–Snow White, Nala, and Mulan–one can see that these heroines contrast starkly with each other in terms of their courage and bravery, yet are similar in that they all need the help of a male character at certain times.

The level of bravery that Snow White, Nala, and Mulan portray in their movies is very different. In the beginning of Snow White, a huntsman is ordered by the evil, jealous queen to kill her step-daughter, Snow White. When the huntsman goes out in the woods to follow the queen’s orders, he finds that he cannot kill the beautiful girl and tells Snow White of her step-mother’s evil plot. Instead of taking her life, he says, “Now, quick, child, run! Run away, hide! In the woods! Anywhere! Never come back!” (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). She unwillingly obeys and runs away to where she thinks the evil queen will not be able to find her.

Her actions show her to be a girl who, when faced with fear, cowers, runs away, and hides. She does not plan to return to her kingdom and takes a very passive role to her own life. Simply put, Snow White is a helpless female who cannot protect herself and does not have the courage to do make things right. Instead of eliminating the evil step-mother who is trying to kill her, she is perfectly content with living in a small home with seven dwarfs and doing menial tasks for room and board. Snow White’s actions prove her to be a girl that hides from her problems, and she is not brave enough to take any action.

Nala, the main heroine from The Lion King, is shown to be slightly braver than Snow White. Her bravery is evidenced in the part of the movie when Simba asks Nala to go play with him at the elephant junkyard, a dangerous place not governed by the lion king and technically “hyenas’ land.” At first Nala is clearly apprehensive about going there and disobeying her parents: “We could get in big trouble” (The Lion King). But after being coaxed by Simba, she finally agrees to check out the graveyard. In this scene, she shows a little bit of bravery by agreeing to leave the comfort of her safe kingdom to doing something new and possibly dangerous. Nala goes on a little adventure knowing that her parents will not be there to help her in case something happens, and she also knows that her parents would not like it if they knew where she was going. Yet she still agrees to explore the elephant graveyard. What was brave was her sense of adventure and willingness to go somewhere she had never explored before. Nala conquered her fear of visiting a scary, unknown place, and she took action. Although fearful of what might

Mulan is definitely the bravest heroine of all three of the female Disney characters. Her courage and bravery are unmatched by any female in a Disney feature film, and her actions prove it. In the beginning of the movie, an evil army led by Shan Yu invades China. The emperor of China instigates a draft requiring at least one member of each family to serve in the army to fight off the evil Huns. Instead of letting her old father go to war, she runs away and joins the army to take her father’s place. It is against the law for a woman to serve in the army, and the offender is punishable by death. Also, “if she’s discovered, [Mulan’s father] will be forever shamed. Dishonor will come to the family and traditional values will disintegrate. Not to mention they’ll lose the farm!” (Mulan). Not only is Mulan risking her own life to save her father, she is risking her family’s honor and the family’s property in breaking the law.

She cares about her father so much that she is willing to risk literally everything. This is in a society where “A girl can bring her family/Great honor in one way/By striking a good match” (Mulan). This means that the only way a girl is seen as honorable to her family is by marrying a good husband. Mulan is obviously taking a huge gamble by enlisting in the army in her father’s place. She is risking a lot more than her life: she is risking shaming her family in a society where honor is extremely important. But she is prepared to take that risk and sacrifice everything to save her father’s life. Mulan is willing to be different than the rest of the girls in her society and is not afraid to live the way she desires.

This type of bravery is seen in another scene when Mulan is on the way to a matchmaker and sees two old men playing chess. As she peers over the shoulder of one of the players, she whispers in the old man’s ear and tells him what to do. This scene is representative of Mulan’s inability to follow the rules of her “society that expects her to act passively; however, Mulan chooses to show her intelligence and quick-thinking” (Hooks). In China, elders are expected to be respected in the highest degree, yet Mulan gives advice to the old man who has lived for years and has probably been playing chess longer than she. Mulan’s helping the old man shows that she is not afraid of being different from the rest of the other young women. The culture has its own idea of the perfect woman and feminine qualities, but Mulan feels that the role of the “proper” woman is not right for her. She is intelligent enough to realize that and brave enough to act on those feelings.

In another scene, when the measly army unit she is a part of is attacked by the Huns, Shang, the general of the Chinese army, tells one of the soldiers to “Aim the cannon at Shan Yu,” the Hun leader (Mulan). While the soldier aims, she steals the cannon from her fellow officer and shoots it at a glacial overhang creating an avalanche that wipes out the whole Hun army. Although she killed a majority of the Hun army and ended up being the hero of this scene, she disobeyed orders to do what she thought was right. Mulan saw an opportunity and took it. She was brave enough to go against Shang’s orders and follow her brain, and fortunately, she ended up being the hero of the scene.

Mulan again demonstrates her bravery when the evil Hun leader, Shan Yu, infiltrates the emperor’s palace with his gang, and in the process, kidnaps the emperor himself. Mulan devises a plan and leads the men on a mission to rescue the emperor. Mulan eventually ends up fighting Shan Yu by herself. Using her intelligence, she makes a makeshift rocket-pack, places it on Shan Yu’s back and sends the evil leader to his death. Where many men had tried to defeat the Hun leader had failed, she succeeded. She did not cower or run away when faced with the huge beast of man, Shan Yu. Instead she fought back and won. She knew that she could not beat him in a real fight so she improvised and used fireworks. Mulan is not the greatest fighter in the world, but she is resourceful and intelligent. Those characteristics combined with bravery make her a formidable opponent to anyone. She is willing to take on any task no matter how difficult and hopeless it may be and will follow her heart until her death.

Although the levels of bravery of Snow White, Nala, and Mulan are all different, one thing the three movies have in common is that the heroines need male figures to protect and help them. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, after having run away from danger, Snow White stumbles upon a cottage occupied by seven dwarfs. Although the dwarfs are reluctant at first of letting Snow White stay in their home, they finally pity her and give in after Snow White says, “Please, don’t send me away. If you do she’ll kill me! My stepmother, the Queen! And if you let me stay, I’ll do the housework for you. I’ll wash, I’ll cook!” (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). Snow White has nowhere else to go, and by taking her in, the dwarfs decide that they will protect her from the witch. They watch over the beautiful heroine and do their best to guard her from the evil queen. Although later on in the movie we find out that the witch successfully “kills” Snow White with a poison apple, the important part is that Snow White relies on the male dwarfs to take care of her and protect her from harm.

As their relationship progresses, the audience sees that the dwarfs are not just her bodyguards anymore:

“They help Snow White mine for what is precious in herself. The dwarfs bring Snow White down to earth. They warn her, they support her, and give her a role, a purpose in life. They teach her how to have a ‘good relationship’ with them. The dwarfs tell Snow White the truth: ‘Your mother does not love you, care about your needs, or put your interests first. She is out to get you. Be careful!’ Snow White and the dwarfs actually mother each other. Snow White is learning about the world, about much that she had never known before…these dwarfs are essential in enabling Snow White to become an adult woman.” (Cohen 8,9,10).

Not only are the dwarfs there for protection, but they evolve into father figures who help Snow White grow mentally and emotionally. It does not matter whether she has a father figure or a mother figure–what matters is that she has these figures to look up to for guidance and help. Snow White needs these male figures in her life, and as Betsy Cohen says, the dwarfs are “essential” to her ability for growth.

Another part of the movie that proves that Snow White needs a man can be shown by the antidote of the poisoned apple fed to Snow White by her evil step-mother. As the evil queen devises a plan for Snow White to eat the apple, she remembers that there is an antidote to the poison: “The Victim of the Sleeping Death can be revived only by the love’s first kiss” (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). In this case, Snow White’s lover is an unnamed prince, and his lips are the key to saving her life. Once again we see that Snow White needs the help of a male figure. Without the prince, Snow White cannot be liberated from the evil spell put on her by the queen. Snow White depends on the prince to come through and wake her from her enchanted sleep, and at the end of the story, the prince comes and saves her life. The prince’s heroic deed is portrayed in a positive light. This is demonstrated at the end of the movie “when he holds Snow White in his arms, and in the final frame, he leads her off on a white horse to his golden castle on a hill” (Zipes 91).

Snow White is not the only character who needs the help of a male. Nala, the heroine from the The Lion King, is shown to be dependent on Simba at certain times in the movie. In one scene, Nala and Simba are chased by hyenas that have not eaten for days. As the hyenas chase the cubs up a hillside, Nala yells for Simba as she slips and falls. Simba turns around and is horrified to see Nala on the ground with the hyenas inching closer every second. Simba runs bravely back and claws both hyenas, drawing blood and allowing enough time for Nala to escape. This part of the movie shows that Nala needs Simba’s protection. If Nala was not so dependent on Simba, she would not have had the need for Simba to turn around and save her. She was fortunate enough that Simba was there to rescue her from danger. Without the help of her male friend, Nala would have literally been “dead meat.”

In another scene, Nala leaves her home to look for help against the unjust monarchy imposed by Simba’s evil uncle, Scar. She accidentally stumbles upon Simba, whom she thought was dead. As they talk about the horrible ways that Scar has ruled the kingdom, Nala says to Simba, “We’ve really needed you at home…Simba, if you don’t do something soon, everyone will starve. Don’t you understand? You’re our only hope!” (The Lion King). Nala cannot overthrow Scar without Simba’s help. If she did not need his assistance, Nala would have defeated the evil Scar and would not have had the need to look for help. She “may be strong and smart and brave but she is still incapable of leadership” (Maio). So instead of challenging Scar and his hyena army, which might have led to her death, she went out of her way to do something about it and find someone who could. Instead of fighting, “she and the other lionesses become impotent victims whose only hope is to find a male lion who can save them” (Foster).

Mulan represents a new breed of Disney heroine who is braver and more independent than earlier heroines, yet what makes her similar to them is the fact that she needs the help of a male at one point in the movie. This point comes halfway into the film after Mulan has defeated the Hun army after firing a rocket into a glacier causing an avalanche. After the fight is over and Mulan’s army comes out victorious, Mulan collapses and one of the soldiers finds blood under her armor. She is immediately rushed to a medic to revive her. As a new scene opens up the audience sees a doctor emerging from a tent and whispering something into Shang’s ear.

Shang’s facial expression implies shock, and he rushes inside the tent where Mulan is recovering. As she sits up in her bed with her side bandaged, Shang recognizes that Mulan is not a man but a woman. As Shang comes out of his shock, he grabs his sword and throws it on the ground while saying, “A life for a life. My debt is repaid” (Mulan). This scene is one of the most powerful scenes in the movie in that Mulan’s fate is to be decided by the captain. Shang controls whether she lives or dies. If a woman is caught serving in the army, the crime is treason and punishable by death, yet Shang disobeys the law by letting Mulan live. Mulan’s life rests in Shang’s hands, and it is with his decision that she gets to live. By sparing her life, Shang essentially “saves” Mulan’s life.

Disney has been around for many generations and still continues to entertain the world. Their cartoon feature films are greatly anticipated by many children everywhere, and there is no doubt that their movies have had an influence on society. Disney’s movies have created some of the world’s most well-known and loved characters: some of these characters have been heroes and some of them have been heroines. When taking an in-depth look at the heroines of Disney, one can find that there are many parallels and distinctions between the characters. Snow White, Nala, and Mulan are very different from each other in terms of their courage, but are all tied together in that they need the help of a male character. These differences and similarities are shown to be true by observing the characters’ actions in the films.

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