|Merida in Pixar's BRAVE|
That said, I do not want to undercut how important I think it is that Merida is a hero for young girls (and women in general). Girls need heroes too, in the same way that boys do. My moral compass was shaped more by my childhood heroes than by religion or anything I learned in school. HE-MAN and GI JOE had as much influence on me as a person as my parents did. There's a line DMX once wrote that sums up what I took away from my childhood heroes, "The true measure of a man is not measured by what he does for himself, but what he does for someone else, and if you help another without concern for reward of gold, what you give you shall recieve ten-fold." This is the kind of thing our heroes teach us, and in most cases, our heroes are people we either identify with, or project onto. A childhood hero is either someone you see yourself reflected in, or someone you wish you could be. That's not to say that it's impossible to identify with someone of the opposite sex, but it certainly is easier.
I am a lifelong fan of animation. I love it; cartoons, anime, CGI, whatever; if it's animated, I'll watch it. I've been an adult for a long time, and I still tend to enjoy animated shows and movies more than I do any other type of media, and thinking back onto my childhood, I found a lot of female role models that helped to shape my life, and even as an adult, I still tend to gravitate towards female protagonists. I will admit that part of it is because I am a man who is attracted to a strong woman; strong physically and strong in personality; but there is also something about a female protagonist that appeals from a storytelling perspective in a way that a male protagonist does not.
The burden placed on men is that you have to be strong and deny emotion; to feel too deeply is 'girly.' This is limiting and often leads to rather one-note characters and monotonous narratives where the stakes are very simple and goal oriented; all the hero has to do is kill one guy or blow some @#$% up. That's not to say that there aren't male protagonists more in touch with their feminine side or that there isn't a visceral thrill in a tough guy kicking @$$, but it also means the stakes are generally external rather than internal, and thus end with the resolution of the movie; you are not moved when John Diehard saves a building or an airplane. You were only invested in the journey, not the destination.
It is generally accepted that women are more in touch with their emotions than men. This isn't really the forum to debate whether that is myth or fact, but it is generally accepted. This is part of what makes a narrative featuring a female protagonist attractive from a story standpoint; the stakes are much higher because you are more invested in the character. You have more empathy for a character who goes on an emotional journey. You sympathize more with someone whose feelings are evident and in danger of being hurt, because we all know how deep hurt feelings cut. We all struggle with emotional turmoil. We identify with that. Men in media are tortured physically, and not many people are familiar with physical torture...women in media are tortured emotionally, and we all know how that feels. To endure and overcome that takes greater strength and makes for a more fulfilling journey than 'Kill the Bad-Guy.'
There are, of course, good and bad things about this stigma, such as the stereotype that a female protagonist cannot control their emotions and makes dumb decisions based on knee-jerk emotional responses (*cough* Katherine Stark *cough*), but for the most part, when handled correctly (*cough* HANNA *cough* TRUE GRIT *cough*) this leads to a satisfying, deeply moving, narrative.
What follows is a list of animated films and TV shows featuring female protagonists that I have enjoyed over the years, from my childhood, through adolesence, and into my adulthood. I hope this is helpful to someone, somewhere, or that, at the very least, you find something entertaining that you hadn't heard of before.
RAINBOW BRITE AND THE STAR STEALER
I loved this movie when I was a kid; it's STARS WARS for girls.
Rainbow Brite did not have a very long life; the show was only 13 episodes, less than half a TV season for an animated show in the 80's; but was still a huge part of many peoples childhood, and this movie was definitely the best part of the franchise. This fan-trailer is far more representative of the movie than the original trailer...except for a rather terrible musical interlude at the opening of the movie, RAINBOW BRITE AND THE STAR STEALER was an actiony sci-fi adventure featuring a strong young girl who saves the ENTIRE UNIVERSE from a spoiled, jewel obsessed, Princess who attempts to ensnare an entire planet in a massive web and cast the universe into eternal darkness. Higher stakes I cannot imagine!
Rainbow Brite is smart and proactive, and possesses an awesome superpowered fashion accessory (I love empowered items...Rainbow Brite's color belt is the equivalent of Green Lantern's power ring, and pocesses many of the same abilities) that makes her one of the strongest forces in her universe. I also liked her dynamic with Chris, a brash young boy that dreams of being a hero. Throughout the movie he constantly underestimates Rainbow Brite, only to watch her stand toe-to-toe with him in every situation, often puzzling out ways to overcome the traps they fall into using intelligence rather than brute force, and in the end they both have to work together to overcome the Princess (Chris has a Prism whose power is reliant on Rainbow Brite's light to work, while Rainbow Brite's power rely's only on her will...and star sprinkles).
RAINBOW BRITE AND THE STAR STEALERS isn't just a great action adventure, it has strong feminist themes that it tackles head on in the narrative and makes for a satisfying emotional journey. I still enjoy it to this very DAY (and I'm over 30. ^_^;;;).