1. Elsa, Frozen
She’s the modern day Cinderella, the fairy-tale for today: her story is all about conquering fears, embracing who you are, and taking charge. We all grow up a little scared and unsure of our potential, but she eventually learns how to own what makes her special and literally builds an entire kingdom from these powers. A whole freaking kingdom. She doesn’t need a prince to save her — in fact, it’s her sister with whom she must team up to save Arendelle — and has an element of vulnerability to her that isn’t worn out as far as Disney’s heroines go. It’s honestly refreshing, and her power ballad is the kind you should keep in your arsenal for all the days when you’re most doubting yourself.
2. Marie, The Aristocats
Spunky, sassy, and devastatingly addicted to romance, Marie was the first and ultimate spirit animal for the hopelessly precocious. She may not always be the most well-mannered little girl, and she does seem to use her cuteness as an excuse for her tell-it-like-she-sees-it attitude, but she knows how to hold her own against her rough-and-tumble brothers. Bonus points for knowing how to kick butt, take names, and rock an impressive amount of pink all at the same time. Elle Woods clearly took some pointers from her.
3. Fa Mulan, Mulan
Okay, Demi Moore doing one-armed push ups in G.I Jane and Hillary Swank packing a punch in Million Dollar Baby were cool and all, but Mulan saved an entire dynasty. An. Entire. Freaking. Empire. (That, and she figured out how to climb a pole with two very heavy cinderblocks attached to her hands, so, you know.) She also uses her femininity against the Huns in a kicky twist of fate, and serves as proof that the very thing from which you think you’d most like to run can end up serving as your trump card. The story of Mulan is also one of the earliest works of Chinese literature to feature gender equality. Though Disney can’t take the credit for centuries’ worth of tradition, the film still speaks to all of the little girls who’d like to be on the front lines instead of waiting around for the hunky captain to return home for them.
(Show me a slumber party of girls who did not shout this song at the top of their lungs, and I will show you a cavalcade of liars. This song is A+ karaoke material forever.)
4. Belle, Beauty and the Beast
The patron saint of clever little girls the world over, Belle gave the bespectacled and booksmart hope that one day, they too could meet a guy who was sort of rough around the edges, polish him up and teach him how to read, and, in turn, he would gift them with the library equivalent of an 18-carat diamond. (At the very least, we would be making jokes about that library for years to come, because seriously, dreams were made in that montage’s reveal.) But more than that, Belle gave girls hope that even if you don’t fit into the role that your town wants you to play — no matter how covetous it might seem to have six or seven of Gaston’s sons — there’s always a space in the world where you’ll fit right in.
5. Mia Thermopolis, The Princess Diaries
If there was a real-life equivalent to Belle, it’d be Anne Hathaway’s geeky, clumsy, reluctant princess of Genovia. What little girl doesn’t want to wake up one morning and find out she’s inherited a royal title? (This is, I suppose, Disney’s equivalent to the Hogwarts letter.) Her struggle to face both puberty and an entire new life — there’s probably an allegory in there somewhere — was hyperbolic, but her father’s simple reminder that “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something is more important than fear” is enough to make you want to stand up for yourself and tackle anything the world sends your way. And sure, it’s a little insulting to think that all the perennially-pretty Anne Hathaway needs to be geeky is some crimped hair, glasses, and an ill-fitting school uniform, but the girl’s love interest was Rooney’s frontman. A princess and a rock star. You can’t get more modern-day fairytale than that.
6. Ursula, The Little Mermaid
In your heart, you know you shouldn’t be rooting for the bad guy, but Ursula really says it best: life’s full of tough choices, innit? For all her scheming and general evilness, there’s something refreshingly honest about Ursula’s take on the world. (For all her messed up rhetoric that men don’t want to listen to a woman, the sea witch does spew some uncontested truth when she tells Ariel that she oughtn’t underestimate the importance of body language.) She knows how to get her way by appealing to people’s most basic desires, and her sense of self and ambition almost makes you want to root for her more than you want to root for the adorkable, lovestruck girl with the fork in her hair. Besides, there’s always that one conniving little girl who watches The Little Mermaid because she thinks Vanessa (Ursula’s alter ego) is somehow more alluring than the mostly passive Ariel. She might be vanquished in the end, but at least for a minute there, she looked good and she knew it.
7. Esmerelda, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The closest Disney will ever get to the whole “hooker with a heart of gold” theme is aptly featured in what is by and large the #darkest movie in the entire arsenal. (Seriously, watch it again: Judge Frollo decides to damn the entire gypsy community in Paris because Esmerelda refuses to be his mistress. There’s no PC way to say that this is basically slut-shaming.) She dances for a living; entrances the affection of the pretty-boy war hero; and helps our lonely, titular hunchback realize his own potential and inner beauty. She’s all for equality, and Quasimodo doesn’t even begrudge her for wanting to end up with Captain Phoebus — he just knows that a person that good deserves good love, too.
8. Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty
I mean, look. If you’re going to encompass evil, you might as well just be the be-all, end-all embodiment of the thing itself. Maleficent is malevolent and malignant and single-minded in her quest to bring about the pretty little blonde princess’ downfall. She is determination at its worst (or best, depending on how you look at it,) and quite possibly the precursor to every evil boss that ever was. Besides, somebody this bad is bound to have a really good origin story, and I mean. Can we talk about this movie? Can we talk?!
9. Pocahontas, Pocahontas
Despite the fact that what begins as a pretty promising coming-of-age story for a young woman to assert her independence devolves into a love story, Pocahontas still has a few moments of badassery. Granted, the film isn’t historically accurate in the least bit, but she’s all sorts of sassy and understands that just because somebody is considered a good catch doesn’t make them the love of your life. Really, she’s the tattooed equivalent to Belle, if you replace a library* with a raccoon. Hold out for real, true, heart-pounding, wind-painting love, and then risk your life for that love.
*I’m not over this library.
10. Megara, Hercules
Megara — or as we’ll call our sassy lil’ soul sister, Meg — has one hell of a redemption story. The woman sold her soul to the devil in order to save the man she loves, has to do his bidding — literally doing the devil’s work here — and tries to break this deal with the devil (look, I can’t resist an idiom, and this was the trifecta) because she does the unthinkable and falls in love again. To risk yourself in the face of what has heartbreak written all over it is to do something crazy, and yet she makes a pretty good play for holding out against Hunkules for as long as she can. And trust me, few women would be able to last against those pectorals and that fame. She has a good sense of herself. She is an independent woman. She knows that just having any old person won’t make her happy — but loving the right one might. She is doing Zeus’ work. She is a good, good woman. (That, and she and the muses are a pop song made on Olympus.)
11. Tiana, The Princess and the Frog
The anti-princess’ princess, Tiana is a hardworking girl who would rather fulfill her own goals than pin them on the actions and emotions of other people. She puts up with lots of basic, hopeless girls in her quest to own her own business, and is able to still be kind to her ultimate foil, Lottie. She also isn’t one to fix her romantic interest, but rather kindly shows Prince Naveen how he can fix himself and see the error of his own ways. They grow together in their quest to each fix themselves, rather than fixing each other and devolving into a world of being each other’s crutch and resenting each other on the couple’s counseling couch 15 years down the line.
12. … and Lottie, The Princess and the Frog
Just because she’s Tiana’s foil doesn’t mean the girl is inherently evil. She knows that she’s got a lot going for her by being rich and pretty, and isn’t afraid to use these attributes to her advantage. A daddy’s girl through and through, she’s important because she proves that every girl can be treated like a princess in her own right so long as she just believes she ought to be treated like one. Self-worth and self-esteem are not lacking here. If Ursula’s conniving understanding of the female body language and the three blonde girls who pine after Gaston in Beauty and the Beast had a good-hearted baby, it would be Lottie. There is no shame in this. (Okay, maybe there is a little shame. But she does mean well.)
13. Tamina, The Prince of Persia
Granted, I’m mostly just mentioning this movie because I refuse to let Disney live down this utter trainwreck of what was clearly geared to be the shameless beginning to a potentially lucrative franchise, but poor Gemma Arterton really did try her best with pretty paltry material. Tamina is willing to fight dirty to protect what she rightfully believes to be hers, and she isn’t afraid to tell Jake Gyllenhaal’s abs exactly where to go. She can hold her own in a movie based off of a video game (and Lord knows video games aren’t exactly known for their feminist-friendly material) and she manages to not just be the sexy, scantily-clad sidepiece; she’s as active in the plot as she can be.
14. Nala, The Lion King
When the little lion prince gets run off by his big, bad uncle Scar, Nala loses not only her future king but her best friend, that rascally cub with whom she wasn’t afraid to play rough and remind him that girls could still beat him. (Lionesses are the ones who do the hunting, after all; why would Simba ever best her in anything?) At his return, she’s not exactly the friendliest little kitten, either, and but is willing to overlook her own hurt ego in the spirit of their friendship. She believes in Simba, and doesn’t understand why he wouldn’t want to fight for his right to rule. Nala is a good per… er, lion. Nala stands up to Scar. Nala is the Aristocats’ Marie, all grown up.
15. Lady Kluck, Robin Hood
You say Maid Marion, lovelorn and sweet childhood sweetheart of our hero? I say Lady Kluck, who would most definitely be played by Melissa McCarthy in a live-action retelling of this mov… Disney, call me. Let’s create an origin story here. But I digress. Lady Kluck isn’t afraid to get down and dirty, fights the bad guys, plays football (!), cuts a mean rug, and still offers really sage advice when it’s called upon her to do so. Moroever, can we talk about how a fox and a chicken became friends? I see your Robin Hood + Little John bromance and raise you Maid Marion + Lady Kluck 4ever.
16. Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins
Beyond the fact that Mary gave babysitters the world over the hope that they might one day get their wards to clean up their rooms, take their medicine and maybe — hopefully! — even eat their vegetables, she also was a wholly independent individual who knew her own worth. She demanded respect at her job and stood up to her boss from the get-go. She believes in tough love with her kids, and that you can be firm but sweet at the same time. She also knew exactly how much nonsense she ought to take from the man in her life, and while they were ultimately not meant to be, you could just tell that she and Bert had a really torrid history. But Mary — ever classy and practically perfect in every way — was able to put that past behind her because she knew that though he wasn’t ready for something real, Bert still had a lot to offer and was generally a good person. Truly, we should approach all of our exes with the decorum that Mary offered Bert. And we all know the #struggle of carrying an egregiously large handbag. (That, and Dame Julie Andrews will just forever be freaking untouchable, amen and good night.)