In the past two weeks, I shared a list of awesome Disney princesses and how they can be great role models for girls. But what about the heroines who aren’t official royalty? Outside of its famous princess franchise, Disney has turned out some awesome female characters who are just as worthy of recognition and a noble title as their royal peers. They may not be official princesses, but they’re still amazing role models!
So to complement the previous list, here are five of my favorite non-princess Disney heroines who girls can still look up to as potential role models. Enjoy, and for the final week of March, Happy Women’s History Month!
1) Jane Porter (Tarzan)
He seemed confused at first, as if he’s never seen another human before. And his eyes were intense and focused, and… I’ve never seen such eyes. – Jane describing Tarzan to her father, Professor Archimedes Q. Porter
Being an environmentalist for as long as I can remember, I’ve always admired Jane Porter from Tarzan as one of my favorite non-princess Disney heroines. Set on understanding and protecting gorillas, Jane jumped at the chance to go on a research expedition with her father to study the animals in Africa, which was a pretty big deal for an English woman living in the Victorian age. She’s intelligent and naturally inquisitive, evidenced by her fascination with Tarzan and her eagerness to teach him everything she can about humans and civilization. Though primarily a zoologist, she is also artistic, being clearly talented with a pencil and paper, and she shows extraordinary courage during the climactic fight to save Tarzan’s family from Clayton’s henchmen. On top of everything, Jane is extremely adaptable, quickly making the transition from being well out of her element in the jungle to feeling right at home with Tarzan and the wildlife that so captivates her. Overall, Jane is eccentric, adorable, and a nature enthusiast who any girl interested in environmentalism and conservation efforts can look up to. Long live the Queen of the Jungle!
2) Nani Pelekai (Lilo and Stitch)
Sometimes you try your hardest, but things don’t work out the way you want them to. Sometimes things have to change, and maybe sometimes they’re for the better. – Nani to Lilo
Nani Pelekai, Lilo’s older sister and guardian in Lilo and Stitch, may well be the most underrated heroine Disney has ever created. After the tragic loss of their parents in a car accident, this young Hawaiian surfer girl was forced to grow up faster than expected and take on the responsibilities of a parent to her little sister at the age of nineteen. She naturally struggles through the process, still technically being a teenager, but where it counts, she always does everything in her power to put Lilo’s needs first. From indulging her quirks to letting her adopt an alien dog just so she’ll have a friend, Nani keeps on going the extra mile to give her sister the happy life she deserves, even when it means forgoing a romance with David (who, by the way, is also awesome) or having to be brave for Lilo while her own heart is breaking. Nani is strong, loving, and completely real, making her an amazing heroine and a wonderful model of sisterly love and the true meaning of Ohana!
Also, for your consideration: ever notice the dust-covered surfboard and trophies in her room, or wonder how she rides those waves so well in the “Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride” sequence? There are various clues throughout the film that suggest Nani was actually on her way to become a professional surfer before she had to give up her dream to take care of Lilo. Now that’s truly putting family first!
3) Esmeralda (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
You mistreat this poor boy the same way you mistreat my people. You speak of justice, yet you are cruel to those most in need of your help! – Esmeralda to Frollo
A far cry from being a royal, Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a poor gypsy girl living in the streets of medieval Paris, but don’t mistake her low social status for helplessness. Not only can she hold her own in a fight and evade a dozen guards with incredible ease, she’s so enchanting that she gets three men to fall for her—an impressive feat even by princess standards. But feistiness isn’t even the main quality going for her; only too familiar with the feeling of being an outcast, this gypsy woman is easily one of Disney’s most empathetic characters, showing kindness to those who are otherwise shunned by society. For much of the film, she is the only person in Paris brave enough to openly defy Judge Frollo’s cruelty, criticizing his treatment of the gypsy people and standing up for Quasimodo when he’s humiliated by the entire Feast of Fools crowd. The ideal mix of a kind heart with a fiery spirit, Esmeralda is an admirable character and a symbol of justice for courageous girls who are always willing to stand up for those who can’t defend themselves!
4) Megara (Hercules)
Megara. My friends call me Meg. At least they would if I had any friends. – Megara to Hercules
Can you say sassy? The love interest to the heroic title character of Hercules, Megara is just about one of the sassiest characters in the Disney canon. Established as independent and snarky from her first appearance on screen, this Greek beauty is not your ordinary damsel in distress, but in fact a multilayered character with a quick wit and a free spirit. Well, as free as she can be under her circumstances, anyway. Meg doesn’t exactly have the most romantic backstory, having been scorned by men enough times to make her skeptical and dismissive of love before she meets her god-turned-mortal soulmate. Her determination to hide her past and guard her heart behind a mask of cynicism, far from portraying her as cold and bitter, makes her real and relatable. What woman doesn’t know the pain of having her heart broken, right? Still, Meg proves that she hasn’t yet given up on love entirely when she bravely sacrifices herself to save Hercules, which in a way may be the most heroic act in the film, as it allows him to save Olympus from Hades and ultimately have his godhood restored. A soft heart hidden beneath a tough shell, Meg is as strong in spirit as she is sassy in wit and is another great character among Disney’s non-princess heroines!
5) Nala (The Lion King)
He’s holding back, he’s hiding. But what, I can’t decide. Why won’t he be the king I know he is, the king I see inside? – Nala about Simba in “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?“
Who says awesome female characters have to be human? Nala from The Lion King would certainly disagree! Strong and clever since she was a cub, this lovely lioness is mature, persistent, and highly responsible, never passing up the chance to encourage her best friend’s qualities while defending her own. She acts as Simba’s closest confidante in their childhood and as his moral compass after their reunion as adults; when he’s long given up on his past life, Nala is the one who finds him and urges him to return to Pride Rock to assume his rightful place as king. And yes, Rafiki may have been the one to knock that final bit of sense into him, but would Simba ever have considered going home in the first place without the support of his childhood friend? Probably not! With a spirit as fierce as her roar, Nala is among the bravest of Pride Rock’s lionesses and a venerable addition to Disney’s unofficial royals thanks to her position as Queen of the Pride Lands!
Who are your favorite non-princess Disney heroines? Any other of Disney’s awesome female characters you would add to this list?