Growing up in the 80s and 90s in Australia, I found animated films mostly devoid of inspiring female characters. Disney movies filled my young head with anger – according to Disney, I could either be young, beautiful and mostly useless, or old, ugly and evil in my pursuit of youth and beauty. Disney ‘role models’ seemed to have nothing better to do than be rescued, fall in love, and change their entire lives for a man (get my dream man but lose my voice? No probs, Ariel from The Little Mermaid!). As I grew older, I realised that I’d simply been watching the wrong movies! There was one director who had been depicting strong women all along in animated features, and he came from a country where women were often still depicted in ‘traditional’ gender roles.
Any film or anime buff will know already that I’m referring to Hayao Miyazaki, who from his very beginnings has been well known for his strong female characters. With Studio Ghibli often being referred to as ‘The Disney of the East’, there are some clear lessons for Disney here in Miyazaki’s interpretations of females.
Here is but a taste of some of Miyazaki’s most revered heroines.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind – Nausicaä
Nausicaä is a princess, to be sure, but kicks the pants out of Snow White and Cinderella. Outdoorsy with a love of insects and science, she enjoys peace but is an expert fighter.
Princess Mononoke – San
A warrior who is capable of love, San is often used as a figurehead to illustrate Miyazaki’s most powerful female characters. Miyazaki said that Princess Mononoke was set during the Muromachi period because it “was a world in which chaos and change were the norm. It was a more fluid period, when there were no distinctions between peasants and a samurai, when women were bolder and freer”.
Howl’s Moving Castle – Sophie
My personal favourite! Sophie grows from being insecure and reserved as a young girl, to stronger and more outspoken when she is turned into an old woman. Although Sophie does need to be saved, she also competently saves Howl in turn.
Spirited Away – Sen/Chihiro
The most successful film in Japanese history, Spirited Away charts the passage of Sen from obstinate childhood into capable adulthood, and represents the change in the role of women in Japan.
Kiki’s Delivery Service – Kiki
A story of blossoming confidence and spirit, this film is choc-full of female cast (almost exclusively so) and represents a wide range of women at different stages of their lives.
Additionally, many more of Miyazaki’s films cast female protagonists where other kid-friendly films may have seen fit to use the traditional male figure (think the sisters in My Neighbor Totoro and the titular character in Ponyo), showing young girls that they can indeed be the central character in their story!
If I have a daughter one day, I want her to feel free to wield a (plastic) sword instead of a hairbrush, although of course she can most certainly wield a hairbrush, if that is what she wants – the beauty of Miyazaki’s films is that they show girls that they can be whatever they like! Disney’s depictions of women have come a long way since the early days, but let us not forget that there are some visionaries who have been showing them the way they should have been all along. As mothers, future mothers, daughters and even fathers, brothers and sons, we should ensure girls feel like they can embrace their own talents and individuality. Miyazaki’s female characters are a great place to start in teaching them that they are amazing – even if they aren’t blonde, skinny and a princess.
Miyazaki’s newest film The Wind Rises is in cinemas Febuary 27. Find out more at thewindrises.com.au.