question of the day: What are some good movies (and TV and books) with young girls as heroes?

Coraline

Today’s question comes via reader Dan, who writes:

I’ve been trying to introduce my six-year old daughter to more “mature” movies/stories, from her perspective, at least, which in my mind means non-Disney, essentially. Over the summer, we read and then watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder version, of course) and Harry Potter: Philosopher’s Stone, and just finished The Iron Giant. All fun movies which she adored. However, last Sunday, she asked me why the boy was always the hero. It left me kind of speechless and hit me that it was very true (even Hermione, who’s a great character, played the damsel in distress).

Immediately, I felt awful. I just wanted to share with her movies that I loved. I didn’t make the connection that I may have liked them so much because I related with the main character (i just thought it was because I loved chocolate and magic and always wanted a pet giant robot… or robot dog). It also made me understand why The Wizard of Oz remains one of her favorite stories, because Dorothy, while a scared girl out of her element, is a bad ass! She smacks the blustery lion, stands up to the wizard, and kills the witch. What other female character shows as much bravery? (It’s even more impressive that this was written in 1900!)

I was wondering if you, given your expertise — and long tenure as a girl — could point me in the direction of some movies that have a strong female lead/major character that a youngster would enjoy. I’m a big fan of Belle and liked the new Rapunzel movie [Tangled], but again was hoping for something non-Disney. After some research, I decided to try Labyrinth this weekend (while Sarah starts off as a spoiled brat at the beginning, she takes responsibility for her actions and stops at nothing to fix them… plus, it has David Bowie, the bog of eternal stench, and Hoggle! I was also going to try Star Wars (Leia isn’t the lead, but she’s remarkably brave) and Coraline, which I haven’t seen, but heard good things.

Any suggestions that you might have would be greatly appreciated.

Dan addressed this to me, but I’m opening it up to everyone because this is a tough one. There simply aren’t that many movies that fulfill Dan’s requirement, but I’m sure there are more than I am recalling at the moment. I do heartily recommed Coraline. I would also recommend, also from animator Henry Selick, The Nightmare Before Christmas, because Sally is really the hero rather than Jack, and she does some very brave things to save Christmas.

From recent years there are a few films you might have missed: Nim’s Island, about a young girl who lives with her scientist father on a remote island and has adventures both real and imaginary (through a book!). Abigail Breslin stars in that, and also in the wonderful, wonderful Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Hotel for Dogs is a sweet movie about a young teenaged girl who sets up the titular institution. Because of Winn-Dixie is an even better dog movie with a young girl as its protagonist. Bridge to Terabithia has a girl as a coprotagonist with a boy, and is about the power of books and imagination.

So, there’s a few to get you started. And now the floor is open:

What are some good movies (and TV and books) with young girls as heroes?

I’m opening it up to TV and books just so we’ll get the maximum number of options for Dan and his daughter.

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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SailorSerena
SailorSerena
Thu, Feb 11, 2021 8:20pm

Many:

Movies(I’m also including short films ’cause you can never get enough):

-The short film Hair Love is a good one. It’s all about a little girl named Zuri who wants to learn how to style her gigantic Afro-textured hair in order to honour her mother, who has an entire channel dedicated to hair-styling. She eventually gets her father to help her, although he is reluctant at first. A sweet story that honours and respects black women and teaches them to embrace and love their hair. I don’t know if their daughter is black, but whether she is or not she should watch this film.

-Annie(2014): This is a modern-day retelling of the original Annie, which portrays her as an urban black girl growing up in a girls’ foster home, who, despite doing well in school, doesn’t know how to read or write. All Annie wants is to find a forever home, but that won’t be so easy. It’s a very good movie, and the songs are, in my opinion, better than the songs in the original(even though they’re more or less the same, I still like the new ones better.). I saw both Annies when I was in elementary school. Guess which one left a big impact on me.

-Cinderella(1997): An incredibly diverse cast with tons of unforgettable songs, everything about this movie is just beautiful. The music, the costumes, everything. And at the heart of it all is a Cinderella who is portrayed as a black girl, Brandy, to be precise. How often do you see that in fiction? Not a lot, at least in mainstream film.

-The entire Equestria Girls franchise: I’m not even joking. The cast is almost entirely female, with what male characters that exist mostly being extras, love interests, or sidekicks(Flash Sentry, Snips and Snails, etc.). Good female friendships, the girls pass the Bechdel Test almost all the time, they all have varying personalities and interests, rather than just generic “niceness”, and they all work together to save the day! Oh, and remember Flash Sentry, the token male love interest who does nothing but fall in love with Twilight Sparkle and Sunset Shimmer? He gets a song eventually…which is all about how he lives to cheer the Equestria Girls on in their adventures and admires and looks up to them as his heroes. The song is even called…you guessed it “Cheer You On!”! The fact that it’s currently the video source for “Female Empowerment Song” on TV Tropes and was even released on International Women’s Day tells you all you need to know. Yes, it’s sung by a male, but it’s all about how the women are the superstars and the heroes, and he’s just their supporter. The spotlight is on the ladies, rather than him. They also all have the same skin colors as the coats of their pony counterparts, that is: green, yellow, purple, pink, blue, red, white, grey, orange, and other unrealistic skin tones, with only a few characters just so happening to have skin tones that coincide with real world complexions(ex. Applejack), that way, they avoid being associated with any real world race.

-Matilda: About a young girl with telekinesis who is also a huge brain. For one, she’s a bookworm who reads books more suitable for adults and teens than kids, and she can solve complex math equations in her head, which doesn’t go unnoticed by the people around her. However, she never looks down on anybody for her intelligence. Although her abusive family(especially her dad, hmm, symbolism much?) tries to stifle her intellect, she maintains her power via her telekinesis(which in the book she loses in the end, but in the movie she keeps, which I liked better.). She also makes friends with various other girls and women, who are strong in their own ways(and Lavender is black in this adaptation). What’s more, she was originally going to be a boy, until Roald Dahl realized that all his previous kid heroes were boys(this was before the BFG.). A must watch/read.

Books:

-The Cecile and Marie-Grace series from American Girl. If you liked Kit Kittredge, I guarantee you will like this. Both girls are different yet also kind, courageous, caring, brave, and funny. Cecile is a rich black girl who is outspoken, fierce, witty, and good at singing. Marie-Grace is a poor white girl who is much more shy and withdrawn but eventually comes out of her shell. There’s an awesome scene where they go to the Mardi Gras ball wearing identical costumes, but since the dances are segregated(so sad that even KIDS’ events must be segregated; you’re teaching them early to be racists!), they decide to secretly swap for one dance! And(without spoiling too much, of course) it’s awesome!

-The American Girl books in general. Seriously, just go read them all(although the Addy ones may leave a sour taste in their daughter’s mouth, since she speaks in broken English and the story talks about her experiences in slavery. But this could also be a learning experience to talk about how slavery worked as well as institutionalized racism!).

-The Betsy-Tacy books. They’re adorable and fun and the story’s all about the bond between two young girls. There are some silly mistakes made by the heroines, like than a hen is a he and five plus five equals ten that, as far as I’m concerned, go uncorrected by the narrative, but it’s still a good book and you should try it.

-Little House On The Prairie is all about an energetic little girl named Laura Ingalls Wilder. My personal favorite was “On The Banks of Plum Creek”. I think their daughter will really enjoy the fun, adventurous spirit of Laura, as well as her sister Mary, who is such a captivating character. It’s even more heartbreaking when Mary goes blind.

-Ivy Plus Bean: About two adventurous girls named…you guessed it, Ivy and Bean. They get into loads of hijinks and aren’t just generic nice girls who do “pretty and passive” things only(because girls want wish fulfillment too, you think we just imagine ourselves as damsels in distress?). In one book, they start taking ballet classes, but are terrible, and try to get out of it by getting sick(even trying to get a sick boy to touch them and breathe/cough/sneeze on them). In another, they try to set a world record and become famous. All of these are things little girls(and boys!) will relate to, and are narrated by Bean in a hilarious manner. Bean is a tomboy, and Ivy is a girly girl, but neither is portrayed as superior or inferior to the other for it(although there is one part where Bean says “Ivy may dress like a wimp, but she doesn’t talk like one”, which is like…why does dressing girly mean dressing “like a wimp”? Everything else is okay, though.). A genuinely funny series about two girl friends, and definitely better than Junie B. Jones, who just teaches kids how to be rotten apples with bad grammar.

-Fancy Nancy: A book about a fancy girl named Nancy who wants to be a fashionista and is always trying to look her best. But despite this, she is never shallow, vain, or spoiled. Her little sister also isn’t as into fashion as she is, showing that girls can have a variety of interests, though they can still have fun together. She also has a best friend named Bree, who is black, and NO, she is NOT a black best friend. She is, however, equally into fashion, always honest, and says exactly what’s on her mind. There is also a series of chapter books for older kids to read, one of which is about her trying to become mediocre at soccer, a feat she achieves(because something’s you will only be mediocre at.), and another which is about her trying to get her babysitter and his girlfriend back together(or maybe he was her guitar teacher, I…don’t remember.). Nancy is also very smart and loves to use big “fancy” words, often saying things like “that’s a fancy word for (x).” So not only is she posh(which is a fancy word for “fancy”, y’see.), she also teaches kids new words. So it’s educational, too! The boys in the book are good and funny as well, but it’s still all about the girls.

-Matilda, see above.

-A Little Princess: Sarah Crewe is a little girl who goes to an all girls’ finishing school, so automatically, almost all the prominent characters, including the protagonist, are female. Despite losing almost anything and everything, she maintains her ladylike grace and poise. Sarah believes that all girls and women are princesses, but avoids being a helpless damsel in distress(possibly because it’s a girl deciding she’s a princess and what that means, rather than a man condescendingly forcing the princess fantasy onto girls!). She is brave, plucky, and optimistic, always maintaining a pure heart and never looking down on anyone. She also makes friends with other little princesses: Lottie(who, like Sarah, has lost her mother), Ermengarde, and Becky, and despite facing terrible people like Lavinia and Miss Minchin, she keeps a good head on her shoulders and eventually gets her happy ending.

-The Winnie Years: Each story details the life of Winnie from the ages ten to fourteen. The first book, Ten, takes place when Winnie is, well, ten, and has twelve chapters, one for each month(however, it starts in March, not January, because March is when Winnie was born.). All the other books follow this same format, except for Thirteen Plus One. The books are essentially a female coming-of-age story, and don’t shy away from talking about tampons, pads, periods, boobs, vaginas, and other things related to the female body in a humorous and non-sexualized way. There’s no beating around the bush, no euphemisms, it’s just there and in your face. As it should be. It also talks about other things relating to teenage girls, like friendships, first kisses, sisterhood, fashion, boys(and girls!), and just overall having a fun time and embracing and enjoying your childhood while it lasts. It doesn’t patronize teenage girls or assume them to be shallow, manipulative, phone-obsessed, dramatic, or always gossiping. It allows them to be wondrously kooky, weird, and diverse. Depending on her age she may want to start with Ten and Eleven, but as she gets older she can totally read the other books in the series.

-Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew: Three detective girls, Nancy, Bess, and Georgia(George for short because she’s a tomboy.), who solve mysteries and have adventures. They do a variety of things outside of that too, like take ballet classes, babysit a pair of twin sisters, bake, perform in a school play, and many more. My favorite girl was always Bess, because I could relate to her the most: a girly girl who was just as good a detective as her cousin George and her friend Nancy. I remember being so obsessed with the books as a little girl that I read all of them. I think if their daughter wants a book with insightful, adventurous, and smart female leads whom she can both look up to and imagine becoming, she should read these books.

-Anne of Green Gables: Anne Shirley was always so relatable to me as a little girl: She was bubbly, she was kooky, she was a chatterbox, she was fiery and outspoken and didn’t let anybody push her around(even smacking Gilbert upside the head with a chalkboard when he called her “Carrots”. Anybody else remember that iconic scene?). She was insecure about her red hair and wished it were black, I was insecure about my black hair and wished it were red. It made me wish she was real so we could trade places. I also loved her friendship with Diana(what a coincidence that I keep talking about relationships between girls!). They truly were “kindred spirits”, and a guy never came between them. This is a must-read if you want role models for your daughter.

-Ramona Quimby: Everyone’s talking about these books, and while I don’t remember much about them, I know enough to know that I really loved them as a child. I remember in one book Ramona tried to get her dad to stop smoking by putting up signs around the house and doing other things to make him quit, which is a truly admirable thing for a little girl to do. I hope reading this will teach other kids to stand up for what they believe in and to never back down, even when the going gets tough. Plus, I liked Ramona’s relationship with her big sister Beatrice, whom I could really see myself in(she calls her Beezus because she can’t pronounce Beatrice, which reminds me of how my little sister couldn’t say my name when we were younger.). She wasn’t just a stereotypical Bratty Teenage Daughter, she had depth and characterization. I love that.

-The One Crazy Summer series: This series follows three sisters: The eldest, Delphine, is stern and serious, the middle child, Vonetta, is showy and vain, and the youngest, Fern, is naive and bubbly. All three girls are visiting their mother, Cecile, who seems like a bad mother at first, but then they slowly warm up to each other. The series deals with issues of racism against black people(and also Japanese people, as Delphine’s semi-love interest, Hirohito, is half-black, half-Japanese.) as well as everyday events in the life of three sisters in a way that is both humorous and relatable. Delphine has to deal with worries that she is growing up too fast, while her mom encourages her to just “Be Eleven”. The books also touch on gender issues, like whether or not women should be allowed to vote or run for President, as well as none of the boys wanting to dance with Delphine because she’s so tall that she is a giraffe, which does a number on her self-esteem despite trying to pretend otherwise(fortunately for her, Hirohito doesn’t care.). And her sisters get development too. Beware, though, the last book ends on a cliffhanger.

-The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond: The main character is a girl named…you guessed it, Violet Diamond, who is half-black, half-white. She worries, though, that she’s not in touch enough with the black side of her, since her parents are divorced and she lives with her white mom and white half-sister. She constantly talks about the racism she faces as a result of being biracial but living(and being seen) with her white family. People constantly give her and her half-sister Daisy strange and funny looks, and even ask if they’re “really” related. Eventually, she meets her grandmother, who is black, and while learning about her black culture, she learns more about herself and the rest of that side of her family as well, and they form a close bond together(and yes, that includes her annoying cousin!). Violet is fun, unique, and a little stubborn, but those traits just serve to make her more endearing. She says at one point that though most people grow up to be boring adults, she will never be boring. And she makes a reference to Dorothy at one point, which I’m sure your daughter will enjoy!

-Forget Me Not: A middle-school girl named Calliope suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome and is obsessed with poetry. Not only does she randomly shout out long words that she hears, thrust her jaw forward, roll her eyes, and jam her thumb in the car door just because the other thumb was also jammed the same way and it had to be even, an episode of trichotillomania results in her mother chopping off almost all of her long, elegant blonde curls, until only a stump is left. Her father died in a snowstorm, so she pretends her last name is June and not Snow to ease the pain. She does not have an easy time in middle school when almost everybody in the school bullies her for her tics, especially Beatriz Lopez. Fortunately one boy named Jinsong P’eng is there for her. They start out good friends, and he even invites her to a Lunar New Year festival. Eventually they fall in love, but circumstances result in them both getting bullied for it, and Jinsong is nervous to even be seen around Calliope, the school outcast. This was the book that first opened my eyes to Tourette’s and just what it was. This portrayal was so realistic, rather than stereotyped(as the book notes, not all people with Tourette’s curse and throw up the middle finger. Calliope is scared to tell people she has Tourette’s for this reason.), and Calliope is so cute and sweet. I also loved the fact that it contained diversity and an interracial romance.

TV Shows:

-Sing along, everyone! Fighting evil by moonlight, winning love by daylight, never running from a real fight! She is the one named Sailor Moon! Sailor Moon is an awesome kickass Magical Girl show that you will want to show to your young daughter! Although Usagi may seem like a stereotypical ditzy, whiny crybaby, she proves that she’s ultimately still a badass and is slowly but surely learning to embrace her role as a Magical Girl Warrior and protector and ruler of the world. I also love the show’s message that femininity doesn’t make you weak. The cast is composed of mostly female characters who all have a wide array of personalities and interests, but their powers come from traditionally feminine things. You can be feminine, elegant, graceful, and beautiful, and still run the world! This was clearly intended by Naoko Takeuchi, as she said in an interview that she wrote Sailor Moon with the intention to show that women are stronger and don’t need to depend on men, since a girl’s best friend is another girl. This story is like a true feminist fairytale.

-My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a show created by Lauren Faust, specifically to counter the stereotype that “girly” or “for girls” equals lame, stupid, dull, or vapid, wanting a show with a predominantly female cast with girls who have diverse interests and personalities beyond just the “token girl” or “generic sugar-coated niceness”. She’s written about it on Ms. Magazine here. Like in Sailor Moon, femininity is never, ever portrayed as weak, dull, and vapid. I mean, Rarity, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie are the more feminine ones in the Mane Six, and the show has proven that they are equally as tough as their more tomboyish or gender-neutral counterparts. Even the tomboys have some more feminine traits.

-Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Chat Noir: Also known as Miraculous Ladybug for short. It tells the story of a French-Chinese aspiring fashion designer named Marinette Dupain-Cheng and her high school classmate, lonely rich fashion designer Adrien Agreste, who turn into the superheroes Ladybug and Chat Noir(French for “black cat”), respectively, using the powers of the Ladybug and Black Cat Miraculouses. The villains are Hawk Moth and Mayura. Marinette is definitely a strong female character(and not in the stereotypical “man with boobs” sense.): She’s ambitious about becoming a fashion designer, kind, and not afraid to express her femininity and romantic affection(even though she gets very shy around Adrien, like many teenage girls with crushes do!). Like Rarity, she is a producer of fashion rather than a consumer, and I feel like that’s what sets characters like them apart from other fashionista girls in fiction. When was the last time you saw a character who was into fashion who wasn’t portrayed as shallow, vain, dull, and all the other negative stereotypes that come with femininity? When was the last time you saw a character into fashion or something else equally feminine…who was actually proactive about it, actively making their own products to one day show to the world? It’s not often you see things like that. While the show does often like to play up her “klutziness” and inability to talk to Adrien for laughs, she’s still a heroic and captivating female lead that I think their daughter will admire.

-Star Vs. The Forces of Evil: A story about a magical princess from another dimension named Star Butterfly who wields a wand and goes on adventures on Earth with her buddy Marco. Star is a bit kooky and awkward, but she can also be quite wise as well, and Eclipsa notes that she’s much wiser than she and Moon(Star’s mother) were at her age. Star is a kickass fighter who’s not ashamed of her femininity, and the wand she wields has been passed down through the female line of her family for generations! In fact, Mewni is shown to be outright matriarchal, with only Queens being able to inherit the throne and use magic(and develop a powerful butterfly form known as “Mewberty”), with men taking their wives’ surnames upon marriage. The only kingdom shown as explicitly patriarchal is the Cloud Kingdom where Star’s friend Pony Head is from, but since the King has only daughters he just declares his firstborn one the heir. It’s almost like Daron Nefcy wanted to poke fun at patriarchal monarchies. Needless to say, the show is unambiguously feminist and unashamed of femininity(even when expressed in male characters, like when Marco wears pink ballet slippers, femininity is never the butt of a joke, which MaryAnn Johanson will like!). It easily meets the “Where Are The Women?” criteria. It helps that it was created and directed by a woman, as most of the works I’ve listed are.

-LoliRock: Yet another Magical Girl story(hmmm, I seem to have a penchant for those, you don’t think?), it’s centered around three teenage girls, Iris, Talia, and Auriana, who are Warrior Princesses from a magical dimension sent to live on Earth. When they’re not singing in a band they call “LoliRock”, they’re fighting the evil twins, Mephisto(who is in love with Auriana) and Praxina, who are working for Graymore, the Evil Overlord who took over their native kingdom of Ephedia. Iris and her friends are trying to defeat them as well as Graymore, so her parents can get back the throne. One notable thing about this series that can be seen in flashbacks from the first episode is that Iris’ mother, the Queen, is the one sitting in the throne while the King stands next to her, heavily implying that it is a matriarchy. Although there is romance between Iris and Nathaniel(and Talia and Kyle), it takes second place to the actual plot and the relationship dynamics between the three heroines. At one point, Talia plans to lose a robot-building contest on purpose so that her crush can win once she sees how much it means to him, and Iris and Auriana respond that she shouldn’t make herself lose to let a boy feel good. So some clear feminist messages there. Magical Girls also undergo a process called “Shanila” where they shed their hair which then assumes the style of a Pixie cut, and eventually their hair grows back super soft and fluffy and they become stronger than ever before; we see Iris use her Shanila powers more than once in the series. It’s also described as a special time in girls’ lives. Hmmm, sound familiar? Talia is also black and the creator is a black man, and eventually two more girls join the squad, one of whom is Asian. There is also diversity in the supporting cast as well(such as Nathaniel being Hispanic). Overall, a great, compelling story that their daughter is bound to enjoy!

There’s many more where these came from, but I’ll leave it all here. I hope Dan will be able to find something among this list for him and his daughter to enjoy, showing him that heroes don’t have to be male. These(many of them at least) were stories that I grew up on as a very little girl, so when I hear another girl wants female heroines to look up to, I’m more than happy to share with her relics from my childhood! Maybe one day no little girl will ever have to ask for stories about female heroes, because they’ll already be omnipresent and available. This seems to be happening in some cases, but is still not as common as it needs to be. But that’s exactly why we’re doing all of this, so that eventually it will become normal. Nobody should be excluded from stories about half the population, and the sooner we make more stories like that, the better it will be for society in the long run.