Before the glittery and ice-covered landscape of Arendelle appeared on our screens, there was another Disney movie holding our attention. Back in the halcyon days of 2002, Disney released Lilo and Stitch, a movie full of Elvis songs, aliens, surfing, and lots of heart.
Along with being one of the most underrated Disney animated movies of all time, Lilo and Stitch is also surprisingly awesome from a feminist standpoint. Take one look at our two (human) leads, Nani and Lilo:
Two ladies with realistic body types, and people of color of Hawaiian descent no less. This was all done with very little fuss, and as I recall, no bragging by Disney. They set the movie in modern-day Hawaii, and created characters who realistically fit the role. Instead of hiding behind “a land far, far away” or a fantasy world where they could create white characters thinly veiled in the “but it’s not a real place” excuse, Lilo and Nani are realistic and have personalities grounded in the real world. They represent actual people. In fact, this movie has been lauded as “one of the most accurate portrayals of the real Hawaii.”
In addition to the two of them, literally every other major character in the movie (minus the aliens) are people of color. Regarding the aliens though, their leader is definitely female-coded as well.
Their physical appearance aside, Nani and Lilo are absolutely wonderful ladies who try to remain in control of their lives. Sisters, orphaned when their parents died in a car accident, Nani and Lilo struggle throughout the movie to stick together despite their circumstances. Lilo isn’t quirky or awkward like the numerous female characters who have come after her. She is straight up weird. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Nani is a wonderful sister and caretaker for Lilo, although it doesn’t always show when the social worker is around. The two fight like normal sisters, but Nani never tries to make Lilo feel like she’s wrong or at fault for anything, even when she suggests that she has to feed a fish a peanut butter sandwich all the time because he “controls the weather” (which gets sadder upon further reflection when you remember their parents died in a car accident because of the weather). She validates Lilo’s feelings and lifts her up when she’s down. Lilo doesn’t get away with anything bad, but Nani doesn’t let her feel bad about herself. Plus, when aliens do show up, Nani just rolls with it.
Nani struggled to shield Lilo from their money problems as she searched for a job in a bad economy, and she tried as hard as she could to keep Lilo out of foster care. There was also an adorable romance going on with David, a minor character we hardly got to know, and we never saw so much as a kiss on the cheek between them. He wasn’t even around for the climactic fight to save Lilo from the aliens. Nani was, and she didn’t need any saving.
This may be no princess movie (I did mention the aliens, right?), but Nani and Lilo will always be two of my favorite Disney ladies who only serve as proof Disney has had for years that women of color are fantastic leads and people will watch and rewatch and love movies starring them. Let us know what you think in the comments!
Written by Shelby Rosten