5. Jasmine, Aladdin

I've dressed up as Jasmine for Halloween twice, so I'm a little biased. But Jasmine is actually pretty progressive, for, you know, a princess locked in a castle. Like Belle, she's skeptical of marriage, and demonstrates the same nerve and curiosity. Jasmine is also pretty brave in matters of the heart, falling for a completely inadequate "street rat" and whisking him out of poverty, instead of the other way around. Unfortunately, Jasmine's only power lies in her sexuality. At the end of the movie, she's reduced to seducing Jafar to save her life. And though that's sometimes the only power women have in the real world, it's sad to think of little girls walking away with that message. On the other hand, major points for at least verbally refusing to be objectified. "I am not a prize to be won" — indeed.

4. Rapunzel, Tangled


A spunky princess in the Ariel/Jasmine mold, Rapunzel's been locked in a (Freudian) tower for ages, and so her naivete sometimes gets in the way of her progressivism. But she's still pretty badass. She's one of the few Disney princesses to wield a weapon (admittedly, it's a frying pan, but still) and she's surprisingly resourceful with her hair. She also recognizes the unfairness of her plight and finds a way out of it, outwitting her "mother," who is in fact her kidnapper, to venture to the outside world.

3. Tiana, The Princess and the Frog


Tiana spends most of this film as a frog, but she's the only princess who starts a business, which I think is pretty damn sweet. Not only that, but that's what she wants from the opening shot — a chance to fulfill her dreams of running her own restaurant. I'm also fond of Tiana because she falls for a penniless loser (albeit one who's actually a prince), subverting the whole idea that girls need to be saved. But then Tiana pulls a by-this-point-fairly-typical Disney princess stunt, where she has to sacrifice something she really cares about for the man she loves. Still, she eventually opens that business and name it after herself. For that alone, she has to rank pretty high.

2. Pocahontas, Pocahontas


Pocahontas, the movie, is pretty lousy history, but Pocahontas, the character, is maybe the first princess we can comfortably call a feminist. Pocahontas doesn't need saving by anybody. Actually, she rescues the guy she loves, because she isn't interested in marrying the guy her dad wants her to marry or in following a set path. She has another calling in life that she wants to pursue. Interestingly, she's the only princess who doesn't end up with the man she's in love with; her destiny is larger than a man, and she even breaks up with the guy with a whole "it's not you, it's my path" speech. Pocahontas loves bravely, even when that makes her weird, vulnerable, and alone. She isn't afraid to be exposed, and she stands up for what she believes in. I'd feel pretty good about letting a little girl watch this movie, although we'd probably have to read some Howard Zinn for historical balance.

1. Mulan, Mulan


Pocahontas is great, but nobody holds a candle to Mulan. She's the only one to overtly challenge the gender roles of her society — and inch by inch, she carves out a place for herself. Mulan rescues pretty much everybody, repeatedly, including several men — her father, the emperor, and the toughest guy in the army. She's also got two positive female role models — shocking in a franchise where most of the mother figures are either evil or dead. The movie's feminist bent is seen best in its most famous song, "I'll Make A Man Out Of You" — a clever line, because of course, Mulan is not ever going to be a man. But she still makes it. Message: you can be a woman, and still be as swift as a coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon. Sweet.

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