Four female protagonists who display resilience and strength

These women break free from the “damsel in distress” narrative

Here are four women to watch (literally!). Composite image by Sara Wong

By: Charlene Aviles, Peak Associate

Fairy tales are an opportunity for the audience to delve into a world of adventure. However, stories such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty typecast female protagonists as “damsels in distress.” These types of plots overlook female accomplishments and fail to provide youth with role models who fight for their rights and dreams.

Movies and TV shows have the potential to showcase unique stories by including women from different backgrounds. Below are four movies and shows that challenge the traditional narrative.

Akeelah Anderson from Akeelah and the Bee

Akeelah Anderson is an 11-year-old Black American girl from an inner-city Los Angeles neighbourhood. She joins a spelling bee after her principal, who hopes the spelling bee’s publicity will increase school funding, encourages her to participate. Along with the school’s lack of funding, many of Anderson’s neighbours are in financial need, which implies she lives in a redlined neighbourhood. Despite the challenges she faces, such as her spelling coach’s unexpected resignation, she perseveres in honour of her role model, her late father. Anderson is determined to win, but she also remains humble. For example, the night before the national spelling bee, she invites her rival Dylan Chiu to bond with her friends in her hotel room. Amazed by Anderson’s dedication and resilience, the neighbourhood and school community see her as a symbol of hope. 

Chihiro Ogino from Spirited Away

After Chihiro’s parents eat food in an abandoned town, they transform into pigs. During the night, Chihiro discovers that her family is trapped in the spirit world, so she independently devises a plan to save her parents. When her employer Yubaba initially denies her a job at the spirit world’s bathhouse, she successfully persuades Yubaba to give her a chance. Despite the culture shock and exhausting work, she perseveres because her love for her parents empowers her. At first, Chihiro’s co-workers shun her for being the only human living in the spirit world, but her selflessness and humility — shown when she rejects  a customer’s bribes for special treatment — win them over, and they demand that Yubaba tear up Chihiro’s employment contract and set her parents free.

Deborah Dobkins from Drop Dead Diva

After passing away in a car accident, Deborah Dobkins, a model, is reincarnated as another woman. As Dobkins adapts to her second life as Jane Bingum, a private lawyer, she acknowledges her former privilege as a model and becomes empathetic. Despite only having Bingum’s knowledge of the law but not her memories, Dobkins successfully defends her clients. Other characters try to intimidate her, but she outshines them with her integrity, loyalty, and compassion. When pressured to offer legal advice that would solely benefit the law firm, she prioritizes her clients’ rights instead. For example, in one case, she defends a client who was unfairly laid off due to sizeism. Rather than accepting a settlement offer, Dobkins negotiates for a pay raise and anti-discrimination hiring policies. By refusing to compromise ethics, Bingum goes above and beyond to win her cases. 

Misaki Ayuzawa from Kaichou Wa Maid Sama

To ensure that the female students are represented in school activities, Misaki Ayuzawa becomes her high school’s first female student council president. She is the school’s backbone, as she often takes on additional tasks beyond her job duties and is the last student to leave campus. Besides her student council responsibilities, she also begins financially supporting her single mother and sister after her father abandoned them. Her dedication to her family motivates her to endure the fatigue she feels from her school and work commitments. Because of her adversity, she displays maturity and wisdom beyond her years.