A heroine with pecs. Who reads. But has Disney really changed its tune on women?

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the most emancipated of them all? For Disney the answer is its new heroine Pocahontas who - dressed up in an off-the-shoulder rawhide number, all the better to reveal her muscular pecs - is as about as right-on as they come. After all, what contemporary live-action feature can boast a Native American female lead (albeit one who looks like an animated sister to Jane Seymour in Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman), plus one who might just put the concerns of her people before affairs of the heart? Pocahontas is the sturdy sort who can navigate a forest on her own, who is full of wisdom, courage and other honourable virtues and, most of all, doesn't have a home-making manual in sight. Poor old Snow White must be rotating gracefully in her glass coffin.

It wasn't like that in her day. But then the few Disney heroines there were mostly resembled Deanna Durbin - indecently young with a snub-nosed prettiness and a trilling voice. Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950) and Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty (1957) were all very much the same. Their commendable abilities included doing interesting things with rags, sleeping (Princess Aurora naps it for almost the entirety of her film) and being nice to animals - the only trait they do share with Pocahontas - while their chief goal in life was to wait for some prince to come. Little girls looking for positive role- models in Disney movies back then would have been marginally better off identifying with Bambi's hapless mother.

Indeed, Uncle Walt was hardly in the business of challenging the status quo when it came to gender. The females in his films fell into three distinct categories that, in many respects, correlated with those in the live-action movies of the day. Apart from the insipid girls who could hold a tune, there were the jolly, often rather batty matrons usually voiced by Angela Lansbury or someone sounding like her - think of the plump, bustling fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, in Sleeping Beauty, or the daffy geese Amelia and Abigail Gabble in The Aristocats. These characters scored high on personality - they even had a few jokes to crack - but hardly had star allure. For that one had to turn to such despicable types as the Wicked Stepmother in Snow White, whose cold beauty and arched eyebrows matched that of Garbo's, or the two-toned Cruella De Ville in One Hundred and One Dalmatians. They were the ruthless femmes fatales of the animated world for whom there was none of that being nice to the animals nonsense. Furry creatures weren't for befriending, they were for fab outfits.

Even in the Eighties, with Little Mermaid, the villainess Ursula proved to have more dimension to her than the shallow heroine Ariel. Worse still, Ariel even gave up her one asset - the tuneful voice - so she could have her man. But with this film Disney found itself accountable to such concepts as positive representation, and it didn't quite make the grade. So when the company decided to make Beauty and the Beast it hired, for the first time for an animated feature, a woman scriptwriter, Linda Woolverton, with the brief to overhaul the heroine, Belle, for the Nineties. Intriguingly, Woolverton claims that she modelled Belle on Katharine Hepburn's Jo in the 1933 version of Little Women since both were "strong, active women who loved to read and wanted more than life was offering them". Finally, in 1992, a Disney heroine who could read! The point was capitalised upon in the marketing sidelines, which featured such items as "Belle's book- ends".

Pocahontas may not be bookish, but she is the feistiest Disney heroine yet. The Pocahontas marketing manifesto handed out to the press urges us to check out the range of active wear to prove it. But the manifesto also reveals how much Disney is willing to overhaul the stereotypes. Under the heading "Action Adventure", it promotes "designs inspired by the fiery moments [in the film]... creating dramatic products for boys".

n 'Pocahontas' is reviewed overleaf