When I became a father of a daughter, I quickly became aware I needed to seek out alternatives to Disney Princesses. If you’re raising a girl, there’s no escaping the reign of them over their generation. Frozen’s Anna and Elsa have only strengthened the power that the princess industrial complex wields over their developing cultural lives.
If you’re tired of all the trappings of princess culture cluttering up your little girl’s childhood, or just wish to expose them to alternative female led films, TV, books, and toys – here are my top five Disney Princess alternatives to inspire and empower your little girls.
1. Studio Ghibli
My search for alternatives to Disney Princesses struck a rich seam in Japan. The animated films of Studio Ghibli, and Hayo Miyazaki in particular, should be a part of everyone’s cinematic childhood.
My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Whisper of the Heart are particular favourites of ours and they boast a wonderful range of female characters, any one of whom is a great Disney Princess alternative. Scarcely a day goes by without my daughter requesting to see at least one of them.
Totoro centres on the gentle adventures of two young sisters in fifties Japan and their encounters with kind hearted forest spirits; Kiki is an entrepreneurial 13-year-old witch who leaves home and earns a living by starting the small courier business of the title; Whisper of the Heart also features a teenage girl, who is an aspiring writer seeking inspiration.
I have seen them all more times than I could possibly count, and I still find them moving, inspiring, and utterly delightful. There is plenty official and unofficial merchandise around. We picked up some Totoro soft toys when we passed through Japan a few years back, and bought the 3yo a much loved Kiki dress up for Christmas.
For other movies, also check out Miyazaki’s pre-Studio Ghibli Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind for a wonderful female led eco-adventure, Ponyo for younger kids, and Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke for older ones who can take more intense scenarios. But perhaps save Grave of the Fireflies for another time – it’s possibly one of the saddest films ever made.
2. Wonder Woman
One of the few female superheroes that non-comic fans know about, Wonder Woman remains a pop cultural feminist icon and an awesome Disney Princess alternative.
Conceived in the forties by American psychologist William Moulton Marston, he wanted to “create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman”. Hmm.
Anyway, Wonder Woman is a warrior, and – yes – a PRINCESS, but she refuses to let being a princess define her, and it’s something she successfully rebelled against in her very first appearance.
The character’s continued fame goes back to the fondly remembered seventies TV show starring Lynda Carter. The show tied into the popular feminism of the decade, typified by the likes of Gloria Steinham – who had previously launched Ms. Magazine in 1972, with none other than Wonder Woman on the cover.
‘Retro’ Wonder Woman imagery continues to adorn all manner of merchandise today, and this iconic cartoon look is as visually appealing as any Disney Princess.
There is a LOT of merchandise out there if you hunt for it, but be warned – it’s far easier to get hold of a Wonder Woman t-shirt for a woman than a little girl. In addition to Wonder Woman, also be on the lookout for Batgirl and Supergirl gear. DC licensees are much better than Marvel in creating merchandise with their female heroes.
It’s time to “Woman Up” Marvel.
3. The Wizard of Oz
While Frank L. Baum’s original book has been eclipsed by the colourful 1939 movie, both feature the engaging Dorothy Gale and her adventures in Oz with her three male sidekicks.
While the film is wonderful, Dorothy is certainly more proactive and determined in the book, for instance not relying on her male friends to rescue her from the Wicked Witch but rescuing them instead.
However she is an appealing character in both, with an iconic eye catching look that makes a nice change from glittery pastel dresses – and because the book has been out of copyright for a long time there are lots of affordable merchandise out there, ranging from dress up outfits to apps.
Perhaps start with one of the books adapted for first readers, or of course there’s the wonderful film – the technicolour reveal of merry old land of Oz still remains one of the great moments of Hollywood magic, that will leave your little one on awe.
Film & Video:
4. Katie Morag
Set on the fictional Isle of Struay, off the west coast of Scotland, this series of books (and now a TV series) feature the independently minded little girl Katie Morag.
Wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated by Mairi Hedderwick, the stories see our young red-headed hero in her trademark white jumper, green tartan skirt, and wellies, on her everyday adventures involving her family and fellow islanders.
The spirited Katie is a great role model for little girls – our 3yo daughter has been inspired by this Scottish girl to be more independent herself. The books offer lots of other great female role models too, from her mother who runs the Post Office while also breastfeeding her new baby, to ‘Grannie Island’, Katie’s no-nonsense dungaree wearing, tractor driving grandmother.
I really enjoy both reading these to my daughter and watching the TV show with her.
5. Star Wars
The galaxy far, far away is just as much a place for girls as boys – it just hasn’t been marketed that way since a long time ago. But the female characters offer great alternatives to Disney Princesses.
Top of the list of great female characters (showing my aged bias) is Leia, who is a great Disney Princess alternative. A royal in name only, she is a rebel fighter, political leader, and social activist. She is a central character in the Star Wars universe and there is a ton of merchandise out there – HOWEVER, there currently isn’t much new stuff at all.
Despite Disney buying Star Wars, and churning out all kinds of new Star Wars goodies, don’t go to a Disney Store expecting to find anything much with Leia on it. If that bothers you, please read more here, and complain to them here about that.
For other more recent characters, check out Padme/Amidala from the prequels and The Clone Wars cartoon, Ahsoka Tano also from the Clone Wars, or Sabine & Hera from the new Star Wars Rebels animated TV series.
These are great empowered women for any child to look up to, and a terrific way into Star Wars and the wider area of sci-fi for little girls. Things are looking very promising in terms of female characters from The Force Awakens, but let’s just see how things go with that.
Geek culture is synonymous with the STEM worlds of our children’s future, so if we don’t want to lose vast swathes of the next generation of world builders – because they’re girls who think this is boys stuff – then get them some Star Wars toys. You may even have some in your parents attic. 🙂
Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels:
What do you think about this list of alternatives to Disney Princesses?
What about the princesses themselves? Are they harmful or harmless? I’d love to read about any additions you have to this (short!) list, or why you think Disney Princesses are fine. Please comment below, join the conversation on the Facebook page, or on Twitter @manvspink.
26 thoughts on “Top Five Awesome Alternatives to Disney Princesses”
My little girl is watching Totoro as we speak! I also introduced her to Kiki’s Delivery service the other day. So far my girl likes the Pixar Disney films as they seem to have more dynamic female characters in them compared to the traditional Disney films. I avoid insipid princess stuff whenever I can. But Ghibli films are particularly great! I’m looking forward to her being old enough for Princess Mononoke and the ones that are a bit more grown up.
If you’re looking for inspiration then if you don’t know it already, I can only sing the praises of the website http://www.amightygirl.com
Yes that’s a great site. While I wouldn’t show her Mononoke yet, my 3yo loves Spirited Away and Whisper of the Heart, which I thought might be too grown up for her.
Mixed feelings about women in Disney films in general, Belle and Little Mermaid are just two I find problematic. So glad you mentioned Studio Ghibli, some great examples of strong female characters there. Spirited Away is a fave 🙂
Great ideas here! Glad to have found your blog. I’m creating an alternative where girls can live out what powerful Princess alternatives can mean. I’m curious what you think.. http://www.princesswarriorcircles.com.
Thanks, it looks really interesting 🙂
Have you seen that Hallmark have released a Princess Leia toy?
I DID see that – can’t get it in UK yet I think… 🙁
Love this! I am constantly worried my 18 month girl is just facing a barrage of Disney princess BS whilst my son gets to have the choice of all sorts of dress up outfits. Even the “nurse” (not doctor!) or vets costumes were offered in pink in a well known British toy store recently! Ugh! I loved Studio Ghibli and that’s a great place to start teaching both my kids about girls being equal to boys. Thank you!
YES TO GHIBLI. Elsa has watched Arrietty and Ponyo so far, but I can’t wait to introduce her to Totoro and my all time favourite: Howl’s Moving Castle.
We also like Panda Go Panda which is similar to the Studio Ghibli style.
Great idea for a post 🙂
Thanks Charlotte. I’m sure she’ll be enchanted with Totoro 🙂 Cheers for the heads up about Panda Go Panda.
Yes Ghibli is excellent. But I’m really not getting why you’d be against your daughter favoriting Disney characters like Anna. She’s quite a display of bravery and internal strength, and makes mistakes that she later learns from, all characteristics I’d want my child to identify with. Many other female Disney characters also hold up much better than you may realize (I particularly defend Ariel, who dreams of adventuring up above long before she ever sees her prince – he’s just one more part of what motivates her). The pink aisle bothers me too, definitely, but I don’t think a boycott of Disney characters is necessary to avoid princess conditioning.
Thanks for commenting. My issues with Disney Princesses require a whole blogpost (and more), but the fact is that I don’t need to introduce them to my daughter for her to become aware of them, as they are everywhere – from clothes & toy shops, parties, even our nursery has Disney Princess puzzles and games. I’ve not seen Frozen yet, but my concern at this stage is the ubiquity of the merchandise – it’s simply everywhere that little girls are too. The point of this list is to suggest great stories with female characters that girls are possibly less likely to become aware of in their day-to-day lives.
We have seen the Little Mermaid together but she’s never asked to see it again, unlike the book which she loves us to read to her.
I recommend that you give Frozen (and Tangled, if you haven’t yet) a try :). Rapunzel, Anna and Elsa may be royalty and now part of Disney’s princess lineup (though Elsa’s a queen, mind), but they’re amazing characters – flawed, spirited, artistic, intelligent, loving of family, so on. They’re films I’m quite excited to share with my children someday, boy or girl. There are definitely a few flaws in some of Disney’s portrayals of female characters and their story lines in the past (wedding endings, the under age of several of the classic princesses) but I find their Renaissance/revival era movies to be much improved in that department.
Also, you mentioned visiting Tokyo with your daughter – and purchasing some Ghibli merchandise. I live in Japan, and in virtually every clothing store and souvenir shop, are shirts, utensils, dishware, and so on, featuring famous Ghibli characters (Totoro, the soot sprites, Nausicaa’s little fox, and the black cat from Kiki’s D.S. are particularly popular). They’re on party plates, they’re used on billboards, they’re featured on train station signage in a small town I live close to. They’re everywhere, and more than a couple of my Japanese friends have expressed burnout for the characters. I guess my point is: try not to judge the quality of the films on how the company markets them after the fact. Frozen is annoyingly Disneys cash cow now, but the characters in the films are, imo, pretty awesome.
Recent Disney Princesses have been more progressive. Moana is a good example. I also think Merida doesn’t get enough love. My issue particularly is with the possibility of “Cinderella Syndrome,” in which she may think that she needs a man to save her instead of finding her own strength. Also with Belle, she is cool, but she sends the message that violent men can be changed by the right women. If men are abusive, just run. Just run away.
Some great alternatives to the typical female role models. My daughter is obsessed with Frozen, so it is constant in our house! Thanks for linking up to #TheList x
Great post. My little girl is only a baby but strangers have already called her a little princess way more times than my son has ever been called a little prince. When she gets to film watching age, we’ll definitely be weaning her on Miyazaki!
I love it – I need to add some of these to my son’s watch list, it’s good to see some strong women in action 🙂 I’m a huge Ghibli fan (I’ve even been to the studios in Tokyo!!) and I’d never noticed but they are full of strong female leads. Love it even more now 🙂
Thanks for linking up to #TheList xx
Another suggestion: basically anything written by Astrid Lindgren. And Tove Jansson. (How I love(d) Little My!)
Arthur Ransome’s books are another old favourite that inconspicuously provided me with great female role models as a child & teenager. And, you know, Narnia. Narnia can be problematic at times, but I think there’s no denying that most of the female protagonists are pretty great. Although when it comes to general female representation, it turns out the Czech translations I grew up with fare better than the original…
Thanks for your additions. I’ll check them out 🙂
Of course since my husband is Japanese our children watched Studio Ghibli movies before they’d even heard of Disney, so big ticks there, but one other favourite you forgot… Princess Fiona from Shrek! OK – she did wait to be rescued because she was brought up to believe that’s what she had to do – but once she got out of the tower she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself.
Just discovered this site, very good!
I was at a school party a month ago and 2/3 of the little girls were dressed in plastic Disney dress and tiara tat with make up, it was barftastic!
Fortunately my little girl seems more interested in her RC monster truck, phew!
Great post, but I need guidance which of these recommendations are ok for 4-5y olds?
IMHO, any of them – I wrote this post when our daughter was 3 (she’s now 6, and all remain firm favourites). Star Wars has come a long way since, and and is a much more girl friendly brand, but you may think the movies too much for 4-5 (I took daughter to see TFA the month she turned 4). Wonder Woman also more high profile, thanks to movie. Again, I took daughter age 5 to see it, but may be too intense for some. Ghibli movies vary in intensity as well, but the likes of Ponyo, Totoro, and Kiki’s Delivery Service are great ones to start with. Katie Morag and Wizard of Oz are just great, and 4-5 would be a fine age.