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Wednesday
Mar102010

Anti-princess heroines from my youth

After posting about Disney princesses yesterday, I was chatting with Rebecca from A Little Bit of Momsense and she pointed out that she was She-Ra for Halloween when she was little. I responded saying that I was once Wonder Woman. The conversation got me thinking about the female heroines of my youth and I realized that none of them are the Disney Princess types. Sure, I liked Snow White, but it was the story that intrigued me and not the Snow White character in particular (I loved the dwarfs!). I also played with typical girl toys like My Little Ponies and Strawberry Shortcake, but I would say that the majority of my childhood media influences were either strong heroines or were male. Not all of my  heroines are the perfect feminist ideal, but they are certainly not the typical princess type that is so popular today. Here is a sampling...

She-Ra - Princess of Power


Yes, she's a princess, but certainly not your typical Disney Princess.



Wonder Woman



Nancy Drew



ShellyS on flickr



Pippi Longstocking




Caitlin Ryan on Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High




Charlie's Angels




Ramona Quimby




Elizabeth Wakefield from Sweet Valley




Peppermint Patty from Charlie Brown




The girls from the Facts of Life


I loved the girls from the Facts of Life, except the pretentious Blair of course.



Velma and Daphne from Scooby Doo




Lisa Simpson



Note: Most of these images and the corresponding links are from Amazon because I was having trouble finding good Creative Commons images of the heroines of my youth and Amazon provided a good alternative. Clicking on the links and purchasing the products from Amazon does provide me with a much appreciated yet small affiliate payment.
« Does the world see moms the same way the New York Times does? | Main | All I think about is princesses... »

Reader Comments (51)

Oh I loved Sweet Valley High...I wish I still had all the books. I think my mother gave them away when I was in my early 20s. (too busy partying to care about nostalgia)

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSandy

I'd like to think that I was able to hook my daughter away from Disney princess doom by pointing out that Wonder Woman and Princess Leia are just as much of a princess as Cinderella...In fact they are more so since they are princesses at birth rather than needing a Prince to come and marry them.

The last 3 Halloweens the kid has been A New Hope Leia, Hoth Leia and Wonder Woman.

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVeronica

I still have all my She-Ra stuff from when I was a kid. I LOVED She-Ra!

She-Ra was designed to sell toys, too.

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterradmama

I was going to post something to this effect yesterday, but didn't get a chance. My son is as in love with superheros and girls his age (4) are in love with princesses. Superheroes are certainly not ideal heroes, but they have brought up some good talking points between the two of us; for example what the heroes could have done instead of using physical force, how Batman solves crimes and invents things because he is *smart* not just physically strong, and how people aren't strictly "evil" or "good." But the best thing about his superhero obsession is that he's able to see so many strong female characters, probably more than little girls, sadly. In the most recent animated incarnation of the Justice League, both Hawkgirl and Wonderwoman are founding members and see just as much action as the male members. I've noticed that in Disney movies, when a woman is a leader in a situation its temporary and the attitude is "oh isn't it silly a girl taking charge!" You don't see that kind of attitude in the JL cartoons. In one of the dvd extras, the animators discuss the fact that they drew Wonderwoman to be taller than Superman (the scene where he realizes she's taller than he is, is actually pretty funny) In the X-men series, Jean Grey is often described as the most powerful of the "mutants" and the other female characters are often seen taking leadership roles ahead of the more emotional male characters. Lastly, if I had to pick my favorite overlooked animated female role model, I'd have to go with Leela from Futurama. The language on the show is a bit, "mature" for the little ones, but she's great for an older girl to see. She's strong, independent, and the leader of the crew. My favorite part is that slobbish Fry is attracted to her *because* of, not in spite of those traits. Whew, that might be the nerdiest comment I've ever left and the nerdiest one you'll ever read!

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKlayre

radmama: I'm sure she was, as were all of the others listed here too (or at least designed to sell books, movies, etc.). I'm not completely anti-consumerism. I would just like to minimize the negative messages that my kids get as they have fun with their toys.

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I loved Nancy Drew and Wonder Woman as a kid....I suppose that led to my career in criminal investigations before having my children and launching my business.

She-Ra was tough, but let's face it - if She-Ra's bust had gotten in the way of her sword-weilding and the sword had been dropped, I'm not necessarily sure she would have been able to discreetly bend over and pick it up....

And your comment on Facebook is correct, when young girls are given hypersexualized messages and role models with impossible body portions, research has shown time and again how it affects their development, self-confidence and body image. The same messages teach boys a false pretense about women bodies and objectification. It certainly lays groundwork for stereotypes in both sexes during a critical time of development when foundations for gender and sexuality are being formed.

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa Wardy

Maybe I'm too old for Sweet Valley High. Wonder Woman, Nancy Drew and Jo from Little Women were my girls... (was Jo from Facts of Life based on Jo from Little Women??? some university course somewhere knows the answer to that...)

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteremma

emma:

I won't guess your age ;) , but Sweet Valley started in 1983: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweet_Valley_High

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I met my husband in 1984, I guess I had my own Sweet Valley High..
I don't personally buy any Princess stuff but it does sneak into the house somehow. DD got some stuff for her birthday along with some "alternative" Princess books, (Pirate Girl, Princess Smartypants and Princess and the Wizard) as I was reading them I was struck how the princesses are captured and forced to do some cleaning before they escape -- even in the books that try and turn the stereotype on its head there are some girlish cliches...
I have allowed DD to watch the Tinkerbell movie -- still some mean girl stuff but at least there isn't a Prince...
http://www.embracethechaos.ca/2009/11/dear-disney--we-havent-really-been-too-close-since-you-started-hawking-all-that-princess-stuff-in-fact-i-havent-real.html

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteremma

Aw, I feel all gooey and nostalgic now! Thanks for a blast from the (more empowered) past.

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNoble Savage

i very fondly remember my wonder woman swim suit AND i really knew nothing about wonder woman as the only TV we watched as children was one episode of sesame street a day. but still, i loved my swim suit.

it was fun remembering some of the other female role models you linked to.
what about baby sitters club?
and of course, are you there god its me margaret. my fav book as a young woman.

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterrobin (woowoo mama)

I also remember the Baby Sitters Club vaguely, but can't remember any specific characters. I also loved Are you there God, its me Margaret, but I'm not sure I'd call Margaret one of my heroines. She was more like a friend.

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

LOVED Ramona. We had a lot in common. Also, I wanted to be Rainbow Brite for at least a year when I was 3 or 4.

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJenny

Good list, Annie! I would also add the females in the Betsy-Tacy books and the Trixie Belden series. I love that Maggie is into those now - and not just for the nostalgia factor.

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

One thing I notice about this list is that it's almost entirely white. Which is not a criticism of you Annie, but makes me wonder about the anti-princess heroines nonwhite Canadian/USian women had as girls.

And I'm just too young -- and too counter culture, even then -- for most of these, but I do remember playing with She-Ra dolls a bit, and man, that is taking me back.

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArwyn

What is funny is that most of these, I believe, would appeal to boys too. They certainly did (and do) to me. Which given that girls presumably want to appeal to boys and vice versa, does raise the question of where on earth this ridiculous princess meme actually comes from.

And why is there no boy equivalent? It must be frustrating to those many brought up to look for a prince on a white horse to discover that there isn't a single boy on the entire planet wanting to play that role. Why would anyone fall in love with such wet fishes as Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella? Ongoing identification with such aseptic female personae can only, I think, be put down to insecurity.

Yes at three you might find the dresses pretty and so on, but if you are still thinking like that at thirteen, there's a problem... well, at least girls can graduate to some of the more "liberated" Disney "princesses": we have to acknowledge they have redefined the semantic scope of princesshood by including the likes of Mulan and Pocahontas (who I appreciate was actually a princess, but not of the European variety).

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSean

I loved She-Ra! I also loved Red Sonja, a spin-off of Conan the Barbarian, she was bad-ass.

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

That's very true sadly. Not that this era is without fault, but I do think (hope?) kids today are exposed to more diversity in books, on TV and in movies than my generation was (the above images are right out of my childhood).

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

Yabbut, She-Ra, Wonder Woman etc. -- they may have power of a sort, but they still had impossibly perfect figures like Barbie. Though, at least He-Man's physique was just as exaggerated, and just as scantily clad! So, the potential negative influence wasn't limited to just the girls' body image :P (that said, DH has found old episodes of both online for the boys, and the messages are surprisingly positive -- and they enjoy both He-Man and She-Ra.)

Many of the characters above (and that I loved as a child) were also "pretty" -- all I remember about Sweet Valley High was how everyone was gorgeous (except for the unpopular kids), the twins were perfect size 6s with blonde hair and blue eyes. Did they "do" anything, other than date? I don't remember. (Interestingly, I've recently read a new series of books is coming out about these characters all grown up, in their early 20s. Which is really funny, because when I was reading them originally, they were older than me...)

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

Valid point, Arwyn. I've made a point of buying my daughter (now 9 yrs) many of the books in the Royal Diaries and Dear America series, because they portray a wide variety of ethnicities and experiences - spotlighting girls and young women in Angola, Haiti, India, etc, as well as girls of different ethnicities in the U.S. And the American Girls series do to some degree, as well.

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

Arwyn:

That is a great point and I've put out some tweets this morning asking women of colour who their childhood heroines were and may do a follow-up post with some of them if I get some responses.

Mine were, as you observed, certainly primarily white. Is that because I'm white and therefore identified more easily with those ones? Is it because that was all that was presented to me as a white girl? Or is it because the only heroines available were white? I'm not sure.

I know that my daughter's heroines, so far, other than the princesses, are primarily non-white. They are hispanic (Dora), Asian (Emily Yeung) or non-human (The Backyardigans or Sesame Street monsters).

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I had completely forgotten about Rainbow Brite. LOL.

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Sean:

As a child, I did often play with my brother. He would be He-Man and I would be She-Ra. So we certainly each chose the characters of our gender, but the fact that they were all along a similar theme allowed us to play together. Whereas if we tell girls to play with princesses and and boys to play with cars, then that limits the opportunities for them to play together.

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

She's not really a heroine but my idol when I was really little was Punky Brewster. She was tough but sweet and had killer style. I like princesses but they weren't my main thing. The one and only reason I liked princesses when I was little is because they wore big sparkly dresses. I never picked up on all the negative aspects of princesses, like wanting a man to save her and all that, until I became an adult. I never had a princessey attitude growing up like a lot of little girls nowadays have. Maybe it's because I had 3 older brothers and a tomboy older sister that wouldn't have put up with that crap!

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEstelle

Ah, princesses. They get under my skin in so many ways, ways that I can't even articulate. And Barbie. Same thing. (I saw a very interested clip on tv the other day showing an enormous Barbie-only store. It was 5 floors or something! And in China. All these white, blonde, blue-eyed dolls coveted by Chinese girls. It was creepy and sad.)

I enjoyed seeing these images from my childhood... do you remember "under-roos" - underwear that was styled like superhero costumes? My faves growing up were WonderWoman, Charlie's Angels, and Anne of Green Gables. I don't know how Anne got mixed in with the other half-dressed, villain-fighters!

My daughter doesn't even know the plot lines to Disney tales and other fairy tales. We have never had these stories in our house and she has never seen or taken an interest in the movies. (But in case you think I've been spared of all obsessions, I can assure you that she has latched on to Pokemon with fierceness!)

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercoffeewithjulie

I dressed up as Wonder Woman, She-Ra and Nancy Drew on successive Halloweens. Nice list. I also totally idolized Cheetara from the Thundercats.

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSierra Black

Andrea,
Yeah, the "perfect size sixes" bugged me too -- not when I was reading the books (I had not idea what a size six was, since I was in Chile at the time and our sizes weer different) but the emphasis on how BEAUTIFUL they all were got old. (Especially since they had to have the half-a-page-long description in EVERY book, and when you read them back-to-back like I did, the repetition got old...)

The girls did "do" things, though. Elizabeth was an editor on the newspaper staff and she did other stuff, too. I think she was involved in volunteer work and such -- because she was the "good" twin. Jessica was popular and co-captain of the cheerleading team (stereotypically "girly" but a position of power nonetheless) and she auditioned for theater plays and stuff. She was in a teen runway model show contest once, too, where she had to outsmart the Mean Girl who snagged her dress... or something. The books did have "wholesome" lessons for the most part.

There is a Sweet Valley University series, but I haven't read those. (I wanted to, but haven't found them in libraries... I did read Francine Pascal's FEARLESS series, about a girl born without the fear gene, trained by her secret-agent dad to be a sort of super-soldier. She doesn't have superpowers, but since she doesn't have a fear gene to hold her back she exerts herself to her body's fullest capacity and adrenaline keeps her going during fights and stuff. She's pretty cool. :P )

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCriss

Along these lines (but for a slightly younger generation... these were my 'toons), have you seen Nostalgia Chick's video on The Smurfette Principle? http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/thedudette/nostalgia-chick/16616-the-smurfette-principle

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCriss

Yes - as Criss said, they did do things. I particularly singled out Elizabeth here in my list because the things she did and the way she treated people was something I looked up to. Her twin Jessica, on the other hand, was often shallow and mean and reminded me of the bullies at my school.

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Oh my goodness!! This is true!! I could not help smiling at this post. Each picture and heroine brought back so many memories!! Degrassi! I have not thought about that in forever!! And Sweet Valley High!! I LOVED those books.

And yes when I think about that I was not a princess girl. I was just in the toy store tonight thinking I wish the girl's section was not covered in nothing but Princess dress up clothes. There are so many better things to try to be. Sigh!

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterUpstatemomof3

Thank you for this comment!! I will certainly be checking this out for my boys, and for my three year old who is distressingly in love with Princesses!

March 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoy

Wow, what a blast from the past. Great collection; mine was similar... we had pretty much zero princess exposure when I was a kid but definitely followed your collection above.

March 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBoston Mamas

Great post. I loved being She-Ra. I also had a Wonder Woman bathing suit. That was cool. It's not that I'm anti-princess or anti-pink, but I don't know how to completely avoid the need (when my daughter gets older) to worship them ha!

Also, how's this for another post - why do toys have to be gender specific?! Does a baseball glove need to also be available in pink? Or the Fisher Price airplane?! Just sayin'

March 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Rebecca: There is a great blog post out there on unnecessarily gendered toys. I just tried to find it, but can't.

March 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

When I began to read the OP, a feeling of nostalgia kicked in. But as a went down the list and realized how White these characters were, it made me feel sad because my only other non-princess heroine besides Tootie was Rudy Huxtable (because she was my age AND she was Black).

This was before Dora, Diego, Raven Symone, Kai-Lan, and Tiana. Even now, how many other non-white, non-princess heroines are there?

March 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAngel H.

Angel:

I've been collecting some ideas from women of colour on twitter over the past few days on who their heroines are. I may do a follow-up post if I get a few good ones. But most so far have either identified with the white characters or with real life heroines of colour rather than fictional ones.

March 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Now I know we must be almost the same age because I remember all of these things. I, too, liked Snow White because I longed to have birds land on my hands while I sang to them. I would go out into the fields and sing and play "Mother Nature" games but became quite depressed when no animals came to see me. And I took it personally, I thought I wasn't good enough. I still enjoy Pippi Longstockings and think she is a good role model for all children! My ten year old boy knows that Wonder Woman is much stronger than even Superman because of old comics we have. I think it's important for both boys and girls to have positive female role models and popular characters - it helps everyone. Thank you for this walk down nostalgia lane!

March 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRashel

I played with She-ra dolls and dressed up as Wonderwoman for more than one Halloween. I never owned a Barbie, preferring to play Transformers and GI Joe. I read the Sweet Valley books, but couldn't identify with the characters; they were just too perfect and popular. I did love that kooky Ramona, though! Laura Ingalls was another one of my favourite women.

However, the heroine that had the most profound effect on my life, the one that carried me through my late adolescence and into my 20s and helped me define myself and the woman I wanted to be, was Buffy Summers from the television show, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". She was strong. She could take care of business on her own, but knew when to rely her friends. She did what had to be done. She protected the helpless. She did not put a boy above everything and everyone else. In fact, she once killed the man she loved because it was what needed to be done to save the world. She had a job to do and she did it well. Woe to the fool who got in her way.

Now our young girls are turning to Bella from the Twilight series as their 'heroine'. A girl whose only goal in life was to convince the boy she loves to kill her so they can live together forever as vampires. A girl who constantly thinks herself "unworthy" of the "God-like" Edward. A girl who is ready to surrender her entire world to a boy after speaking to him only twice.

Our girls need more Buffy and less Bella!

March 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHeather (HeatherScent)

Rashel:

My kids have all of the original Pippi Longstocking DVDs. Emma always asks for Pippi ponytails.

March 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Heather:

I never watched Buffy, so can't comment on that. But I do agree about Bella (from what I've seen). You might be interested in a post I wrote profiling and linking to two posts, one of which was my friend's post on the Twilight thing: http://www.phdinparenting.com/2009/11/21/icomleavwe-day-1/" rel="nofollow">No you don’t, yes you can – lessons for our daughters.

March 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

How depressing is this?
I think that substituting the Disney "if you're skinny and beautiful you can get a man" message for "if you're skinny and sexy and beautiful you can be powerful" message is splitting hairs (Wonderwoman, Shera, Charlie's Angels).
Daphne and Velma is an example of "the smart ugly one knows the answers, but guys only want the leggy pretty one"
And if my memory serves, for any remotely realistic female character portrayed in the SVH books, there were 4 that set the feminist movement back 40 years.
Disney and all media companies have a responsibility to their shareholders to sell products- they don't have a responsibility to parents to make sure our kids are educated properly. In a perfect world, the two objectives wouldn't conflict. But in the real world, sex and violence sell (even to kids) and the only way that's going to change is if we the parents just turn all this crap off.

March 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

I was more of a He-Man fan when I was younger, but when my brother wouldn't let me play with his, I turned to She-Ra.

I believe this is a very complete list of all chicks who rocked in the 1980's. I love it.

-Aimee

So many familiar book covers. I think I read almost the entire Sweet Valley Twins series in my tween years...and I read all of the Ramona books before that. Did you ever see the Ramona TV series in the late 80s, by chance? :)

March 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

Meg from Madeleine L'Engle's "Wrinkle in Time" was far and away my most influential character. I'm a little surprised to see she isn't mentioned here!

March 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKatje Sabin

I was into everything you mentioned (except for sweet valley high and my degrassi heroines were Spike and Liz) but I was surprised not to see Jem and the Holograms on your list. She ran a record label, fronted an all girl band and ran a group home for girls. I'm so very glad I still have some Jem on VHS to show my kid when she's a little older. Did I mention I love this post?

April 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKristin Craig Lai

Buffy Anne Summers is definitely the heroine of my youth and an inspiration to females (and males) of all ages. She took care of her dying mother and then picked the coffin and planned the funeral without so much as a phone call from her father. She had a full-time job and her own apartment for four months at seventeen (while she was grieving her "soulmate", framed for the murder of a friend, kicked out of school, kicked out of her home). She knew when to fight for her own happiness and freedom while also knowing when to sacrifice and let go of certain dreams for the greater good and to help others. She excelled in her schoolwork for the two years she matriculated full-time at UCS. She aced the SAT (she studied in a cemetary with her Watcher). She took a lousy minimum-wage job to support her sister. She was a Guidance Counselor for teens. She survived severe depression from being ripped out of Heaven. She went patrolling every night since she turned fifteen years old. She would go head to head with Generals (MacNamara & Voll) and Principals and the Shadowmen and Professors and the Head of the Watcher's Council. She was leading an international paramilitary organization by twenty-two. Her style matured with her character, trading in the short skirts and halters for full length skirts or pants and more modest but still attractive ensembles.

May 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNia Wesley

We only had CBC growing up,so not much in the way for TV heroines. No, my heroines were in comic books. X-men, ElfQuest, Justice League, Teen Titans, She-Hulk..you name it, I read it. All the women, bar a few non-superheroes were strong, complicated, smart, sometimes stupid, sometimes emotional, all together extremely human in extraordinary conditions.
Later on came Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Since then, been pretty low on the heroine department, unless you count Henci Goer ;)
I'm glad that characters like Dora, Emily Yueng, Kai-lan are around for my 2 small children. They Love princesses, but they aren't above busting out play swords and fighting monsters (thanks Warcraft :D )

July 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTannis

Amusing but are character such as Cinderella and Snow White really that bad.

Anyway if my daugther was going to be any kind of female hero, she would definately Cat Woman.

Allison

January 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAllison

When I was in college one of my friends nicknamed me Velma and I didn't mind a bit

June 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

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