Let’s face it, Disney is currently having a hard time in terms of female representation. Their iconic princesses have been criticised for being poor role models for younger audiences – so much so, that celebrities are banning their daughters from watching classic Disney films. However, there is another animated film studio that can step in to inspire younger female audiences.
Established in 1985, Japan-based Studio Ghibli has put female characters at the forefront of more than half of their films. Though most of their projects are fantastical, the heroines are less so – aged from pre-pubescent to teens, they come across as very relatable characters and their respective journeys are not those from a fairy tale.
One of the most endearing qualities of Studio Ghibli’s heroines is their relatability to the audiences. Despite their young age, some of them take on roles of responsibility and actively work and lead very practical lifestyles. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind‘s eponymous character is not only a princess, but she is also an active explorer and pacifist who is empathic to nature and the insects that dominate the nearby toxic jungle. In addition, Kiki and Sophie (Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle respectively) are respectively employed as a delivery girl and hatmaker. Regardless of their personal circumstances, they are not driven by materialism, greed or popularity, nor are they feel pressurised by their peers. As a result, they are essentially driving their own destiny and not waiting for fate to intervene or improve their life.
Having a strong lead female character is key to setting an example to audiences. Like the Disney princesses, audiences form a rapport with someone they quickly associate with the story but Studio Ghibli actively keeps away from the romanticism of its Western counterpart – not to mention their reliance on male characters. Highlighted as a key Disney Princess characteristic in Ralph Breaks the Internet, the independence in the majority of Studio Ghibli’s heroines defies the fact that they need is ‘a big, strong man to rescue them’ – in some cases, it is them who saves the male protagonist, highlighting that their individual character development is not coerced into the ‘love conquers all’ cliché that will eventually lead to their ‘happily ever after’.
However, there are other female characters whose strength comes from rebellion. Kaguya (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) chooses to go against her father’s wishes and rejects each of her powerful suitors, including the Emperor. Castle in the Sky‘s Sheeta rejects her lineage as a Laputian princess and Ponyo‘s eponymous character chooses to turn her back on her life in the water to become a human. Although each of these characters ultimately turns their attention to a boy, they stand by their own choices and live their life that they want – displaying a confidence that is rare among such young protagonists.
In fact, one of the core characteristics among Studio Ghibli’s heroines share is their youth. Exuding an innocence that avoids becoming naivety, the fact that they are capable of achieving so much before reaching adulthood presents them as more inspirational and relatable role models for younger audiences. In fact, their respective narratives come across as life lessons so we see them experience emotional turmoil and failure, but more importantly, how they eventually overcome them. In comparison to some of the studio’s adult female characters, some of whom portray anti-heroes (Dola in Castle in the Sky, Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke, Princess Kushana in Nausicaä and the Witch of the Waste in Howl’s Moving Castle), their younger counterparts provide a likeability and courage amid their fantastical surroundings.
Despite overwhelming odds, each Studio Ghibli heroine doesn’t shy away from a challenge. This bravery does not stem from bravado or arrogance – they take it upon themselves to figuratively save the day because they feel it is the right course of action. For instance, Nausicaä personally lures insects away from her home to prevent war and save her people as they cower in fear; San in Princess Mononoke takes on the armed community Irontown; and both Chihiro (Spirited Away) and Sophie try and undo powerful magic, despite their innocence. Each girl is thrown into a situation that would be overwhelming to most people, young or old, yet they exhibit a determination that tests them emotionally and physically. At the end of the day, they persevere and ultimately triumph.
Overall, Studio Ghibli’s female protagonists possess an array of qualities that are bound to inspire younger audiences. Not only are they brave, practical and grounded, but they also prove that you don’t have to wear a crown and a pretty dress to get a happy ending – and that normal, down-to-earth girls can save the day.
Thanks for reading.