These 2016 Animated Films Are Putting Female Characters Front & Center In A Genius Way

Animated films have for years featured young male protagonists as their heroes. Sure, Disney films put princesses front and center, but thinking back to some of the non-fairy-tale animated films of recent years, like Big Hero 6, Wreck-It Ralph, How to Train Your Dragon, or The Lego Movie, all have focused on male leads. But 2016 seems determined to change that. Later in the year, we'll get to see Disney's very-human Moana hit the seas, and so far, audiences have gotten not one, but three different animated female animal characters who are not only essential to the plot, but who defy damsel-in-distress stereotypes. In a trend that hopefully will continue for years to come, Zootopia, Finding Dory, and The Secret Life of Pets all feature lady leads who are determined and optimistic characters, making great role models for the kids who will inevitably see these movies.

In March, Disney premiered Zootopia, which followed Officer Judy Hopps, a bunny cop who leaves her farm and her family to venture to the big city and become a police officer. While it naturally features adorable animals, funny situations, and gorgeous animation, the film also is a genius allegory about how to reject judgment and embrace our differences. And in the middle of the entire story is a female protagonist who attempts to defy expectations and make a name for herself in a male-dominated world.

As a female member of a "prey" species, Judy isn't the usual type to apply to the police academy, which is filled with "predators" such as tigers, bears, and cheetahs. But Judy has dreams, and though her choice worries her parents, she sets out on her own. Though she became discouraged at times, she faces adversity, solves problems, and becomes a hero. For kids watching Zootopia, it matters tremendously that they get to see a feisty female character face her fears, and pursue a typically masculine profession. The movie is so empowering, and it might just inspire young girls to think about their own future possibilities.

Then, this summer sees the return of another female character whose strength and persistence are essential to her film's storyline. Finding Dory, a sequel to 2003's Finding Nemo, switches focus from the lost little clownfish to the orphaned adult blue tang voiced by Ellen DeGeneres. While in the first film, her short-term memory loss is used as comic relief, the sequel focuses on Dory's quest to find her parents and incorporates some very human elements, such as parenting children with disabilities and adoptive families. Throughout Dory's journey, her confidence, abilities, and self-worth are repeatedly called into question not by others, but by her own inner judgments. For kids watching, especially kids who may also suffer from some sort of intellectual or physical disabilities, the messages of determination, asking for help when you need it, and believing in yourself are indispensable. And, as a bonus, Dory being the least-confident character of her friend trio acts as proof that a hero doesn't need to be arrogant or a natural-born leader in order to be successful.

And now there's The Secret Life of Pets, which opens on July 8. The movie features a veritable zoo of talking dogs, cats, birds, turtles, you name it, telling the story of what pets do when their owners are away. But one fluffy pooch named Gidget, voiced by Jenny Slate, not only defies her breed, but defies gender stereotypes as well. When her paramour and friend, Max and Duke, both go missing, Gidget is certain that she needs to head out and find them. Many of the other animals don't believe her, chalking her excitability up to her breed, and the scenario eerily echoes how women are often the victims of gaslighting. But Gidget has no self-doubt. She knows she's right, and takes action regardless of what the others think. It's a valuable lesson for young girls whose beliefs are often discounted or whose goals are unsupported.

It's so important for kid-centric movies to feature heroines who are assertive, smart, and independent, and not just because they're good role models for young girls (although that, obviously, is a huge component). Studies have shown that it's actually beneficial for boys to be exposed to women characters because it helps develop their views on gender roles and social interactions. Researchers at Brigham Young University noted that boys with "higher princess exposure" were less likely to shun "girly" things for toy guns, exhibited more balanced interests, and displayed more “prosocial behavior” at home and in the classroom. "Boys who watched movies such as Frozen or Cinderella were more likely to help out at school or share toys," the study noted.

And for any boys who might be put off by going to a "girly" movie, the fact that animated movies like Zootopia, Finding Dory, and The Secret Life of Pets are making their female protagonists animals is a smart touch. Young boys and girls alike might not know the gender of the characters they're watching, but they'll take in the lessons they're sharing nonetheless. So in a way, these movies are tricking kids for the better. Like sneaking vegetables into dessert, Zootopia, Finding Dory, and The Secret Life of Pets all manage to teach kids that women are strong, independent, and capable by featuring some awesome, badass animal ladies.

Images: Universal (2), Disney (2)