It has become something of a platitude in recent years to bemoan Disney’s repetitive female character designs — so you’ll have to grin and bear it for a moment as I do exactly that.

As a child, I professed to never having had a favourite Disney character, with all the cool-headed mock-ambivalence of an eleven-year-old too proud to admit she adored Jim Hawkins more than life itself. That is, until sometime in early 2011, when Tangled hit big screens and I met Mother Gothel —swathed in burgundy velvet, her foibles manifested physically in her prominent nose and dark ringlets. At once I adored her, in the narcissistic way all children enjoy seeing someone who resembles themselves on screen, and deplored her, recognising almost immediately that her aquiline nose was shorthand for a termagant woman. She was the villain — any vain hope in my mind that she could be otherwise had been thoroughly obliterated the moment Disney slapped some stereotyping on her and called it a day.

Mother Gothel in Tangledtwitter/mogamoka2

If I had not witnessed carbon-copy character designs repeated ad nauseam throughout the films of my childhood, perhaps I would have been more hurt. But as things stood, years of films expounding that innate goodness would manifest as dinner-plate blue eyes, blonde locks and 0% body fat had left eleven-year-old me a jaded spinster of a girl, more exhausted than upset. I knew that if I wanted to see women (that is, not the same cow-eyed girl with varying colour palette) I would have to look elsewhere: I had to go to Ghibli.

The women of Ghibli were rotund — fantastically obese even — with wonderfully bulbous, aquiline noses protruding from their wrinkled, sallow-skinned complexions; their wide mouths framed by smile lines, their voracious eyes by crow’s feet. Their faces were stained puce with burn scars and their amputated limbs sported golden prosthetics.

Yubaba in Spirited Awaytwitter/tostiewithme

In Disney’s cartoons, women who had the gall to age past twenty-five were cast either as the malicious crone (the vituperative step-mother or bitter spinster) or, most often, out of existence, into some obscure abyss, never to be seen again. In the films of Studio Ghibli, not only do women age, they aren’t vilified for daring to do so. Old women could be boisterous pirate captains, like Dola from Laputa, village elders or religious leaders, like in Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä, or witches of unrivalled magical talent, like in Spirited Away. Occasionally, old women even get to be protagonists — although I’m aware Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle is a little bit of a cop-out, it’s substantially more variation than Disney ever offered.

"Old women could be boisterous pirate captains, like Dola from Laputa"twitter/catbuspod

You may, by now, notice that a common theme is emerging: positions of authority in Studio Ghibli are most often occupied by women. They’re war-hardened generals, like Kushana from Nausicaä, steadfast village leaders like Lady Eboshi from Princess Mononoke, or even primordial sea deities who’ve delegated child-rearing to their spindly, eye-shadow-and earring-wearing husbands (Ponyo’s dad’s waist is snatched and no one can tell me otherwise.)

“In Studio Ghibli femininity is not antithetical to authority”

However, unlike in most western films, the pathos of these women-leaders is seldom rooted in the tacit incongruity between their authority and their femininity. In Studio Ghibli femininity is not antithetical to authority; it is not a hindrance that need be shed or suppressed for a woman to ascend to power. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s crucially their femininity which allows women to be successful leaders. Lady Eboshi is as ruthless and driven as she is deeply sympathetic to the plight of the sick and weak. She liberates women from brothel houses by providing them employment in her burgeoning settlement all while sheltering lepers within her home. Zeniba, from Spirited Away, is at once a vindictive, and often cruel, witch but she is nevertheless motherly and patient, more than happy to knit and cook with her guests. Dola, the pirate captain, is similarly steadfast and hardy but these traits are never at odds with her more maternal and nurturing attributes. All of the women mentioned above begin life as antagonists to the protagonist, most often a young girl herself.

"Lady Eboshi is as ruthless and driven as she is deeply sympathetic to the plight of the sick and weak"twitter/sailoranime

It is, however, crucial to distinguish ‘antagonist’ from explicit villain. The antagonistic women of Ghibli find themselves at odds with the protagonist not because of some greater Manichaean battle between good and evil but rather because of morally ambiguous circumstances which have unfortunately positioned her against an equally ambiguous protagonist. Its refreshingly humanising to have a female antagonist who is not innately evil by virtue of her vanity, but rather a victim of circumstance, who’s emotional complexity rivals that of the protagonist. The pathos of Ghibli’s female antagonists is endearing, inviting forgiveness if not empathy.

“These young girls vie to find footing in worlds erupting with a dizzying cacophony of mythical creatures, verdant nature and awe-inspiring beings”

Ghibli’s protagonists are similarly burdened with a pervading sense of self-doubt, the majority being adolescent girls — interspersed by the odd male protagonist appearing as a flying, anti-fascist, Italian pig-man or a cursed prince-cum-teenage-runaway (nothing says teenage angst like patricide). These young girls vie to find footing in worlds erupting with a dizzying cacophony of mythical creatures, verdant nature and awe-inspiring beings. It’s overwhelming and, at times, unnerving but never insurmountable; they overcome through self-actualisation and the relationships they acquire along the way — romantic or otherwise.

San in Princess Mononoke twitter/roxycult

Summarising the romantic relationships of his female protagonists, Hayao Miyazaki states that they “will need a friend […] but never a saviour.” What unites the two is not dependency nor necessity but, crucially, choice — and it is precisely what makes the relationship appealing. The pair aren’t begrudgingly forced to co-operate under pain of death; instead, their relationship is borne of a mutual desire to help one another, to inspire in one another a passion for life.


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For years, I struggled to verbalise the ineffable reasons for which I enjoyed the films of Studio Ghibli more than any others I watched, what precisely it was that drew me to them again and again. Every time Nausicaä snarled or Eboshi sneered, when Chihiro grimaced or Mononoke bared her pointed fangs, when Satsuki yelled or Sophie wept in frustration, I felt a warmth stir in me which was at once comforting and invigorating: it was the profound reassurance of a common humanity. The reason Ghibli appealed to me so much as a young girl, and even more now as an embittered hag, is, quite simply: the women of Studio Ghibli are human, in such a crucial way that most female characters fail to be.

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