The Unlikely Way Walt Disney Championed Strong Women, According To Steven Spielberg

HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 09: Director Steven Spielberg speaks onstage during American Film Institute’s 44th Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute to John Williams at Dolby Theatre on June 9, 2016 in Hollywood, California. 26148_004 (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images )
Source: Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

When you think of Walt Disney, the term “badass” may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Nor the word “feminist.” Little did I know, he was seemingly very much both of those things. I am a self-admitted, through-and-through sucker for Disney stories. One of my first Halloweens, I was Minnie Mouse. The year after, Belle. And the year after that, Pocahontas. But when I got older and the rose-colored glasses of these fairy tales began to slip away, I started to develop a little bit of WTF-ness towards the now-deceased Hollywood legend, wondering: Why did Disney’s princesses always rely on a prince to save them? I’m 25 and currently prince-less yet doing just fine. Hell, even better than fine. Still, I’d think: Did these stories give girls false expectations? Then I encountered another Hollywood legend who proved me completely wrong.

There is one common and extremely powerful theme strung throughout the majority of Disney’s stories, and it took sitting across from none other than Steven Spielberg for me to realize this. Days upon the release of Spielberg’s whimsical retelling and big-screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, I caught him in LA while promoting the movie (and I don’t think I breathed the whole time). As he explained the surprising element that attracted him to this story, I was left even more breathless. 

If a refresher is needed, BFG tells the story of Sophie, a courageous orphan with inexplicably huge courage who not only befriends a giant, but tells him what-in-the-h is up. Although a change of pace from his recent lineup of adult-themed films, Spielberg couldn’t wait to take on the project, because, well, Disney. He explains how Disney heavily influenced him, more than Alfred Hitchcock or any other filmmaker, with the “power of cinema.” “Disney was the first time I realized you could be scared half to death, and then rescued minutes later,” he says. “Disney had this incredible power to create images that were so frightening you had to turn away from the screen, but then suddenly those images would turn into a beautiful kind of moment of transcendence."

It’s true, and I think this is an element that not only makes Disney films irresistible, but timeless. Spielberg goes on to explain the cliche of battling a dragon. And who’s left to fight those dragons? The females. “Taking on the dragon [is] terrifying. But when you’ve finally vanquished the foe, you’re left with the damsel in distress.” And here’s what the director points out: Disney’s damsels don’t remain distressed. They turn sh*t around for themselves. This is something about Disney’s work that the icon admires so much:

Disney of course would take the damsel in distress that Hollywood would make the victim and turn the damsel into the proactive heroine. [He] also had strong women in all the animated films. Cinderella, Snow White, look at all the animated films — very strong women. I find that Disney probably influenced me in that sense. 

If he was holding a mic, I would’ve made him drop it.

When I think about it, he’s got a point. Mulan will always be my hero. Even since Disney’s passing, young girls still have strong females, such as Elsa, to look up to. 

BFG’s Sophie is no exception to the Disney legacy of female badassery. “With this movie, I think we have one of the strongest young women I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. I mean, she takes the BFG by his lapels.” Told you, Sophie schools his ass. “BFG doesn’t have an answer for you. He doesn’t have a response. He just sort of flaps his lips and goes, ‘Well, sometimes I don’t know what I’m saying.’ Maybe even Roald Dahl [was an influence] in that way because he wrote a very strong female protagonist in the book of BFG.”

Picking a young woman suitable to play such a strong female lead and carry on the tradition was a very conscience choice for the 69-year-old director. When he first encountered 12-year-old Ruby Barnhill, he knew she was the girl. And the reason why is everything. “The first thing I realized was she’s comfortable in her own skin, very. She’s very confident, and she has a tremendous heart,” he says. “She just puts so much love and interest out there into the world. She was more interested in asking questions than answering my questions.”

It’s clear that elements of real-life Barnhill were organically infused into her brave and sympathetic character. After all, she was chosen after Spielberg and his team interviewed nearly 400 girls in every English-speaking country in the world. Simply put by the director: “I was very lucky to meet Ruby.”

With a newfound respect and adoration for Disney and his endless imagination, I feel better having looked up to his portrayals of women for years growing up. I mean, Belle didn’t take any of the beast’s crap. Ariel wanted to walk way before she happened to meet a cute guy. From Maleficent to Ursula, each witch was secretly a queen in my eyes. I'll always have Mulan. And now, young girls everywhere will have Sophie.

Images: Disney (2); Giphy

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