Why 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' was arguably Disney's first progressive movie...

Addressing social & political issues through children's stories

It is safe to say that Disney’s latest storylines have moved towards a more progressive viewpoint in terms of female empowerment. Frozen’s Elsa is saved by her little sister rather than a man, and in Raya - The Last Dragon, there is no man at all. Is this because Disney would go bust without a rehaul of the classic stranded Disney Princess finding her true love, or because they, like society, have grown with modern times and developed new healthy messages for young girls, boys and non-binary that is based upon strong female leads and fair representation?

As a big fan of Disney I’d like to go with the latter. However there is one movie that was made in 1996, which is arguably one of the most under-looked Disney movies of all time that grossed over three hundred million in the box office - The Hunchback of Notre Dame.


If you haven’t seen this movie, please do. Not only do you get the delight of listening to Demi Moore’s husky voice throughout as the main character Esmeralda, but there are multiple references to current political & social issues.

The story begins with Quasimodo being taken on by evil villain Frollo, after Frollo killed his mother on the Notre Dame steps after chasing her for being a ‘gypsy.’ Frollo takes the boy on as a guardian out of guilt and a fear of the Catholic Church. However he locks the boy away in the belltower as Quasimodo has a disability (maybe the title of the movie would be changed in 2021).

So, five minutes in and we're already addressing the urgent topics of marginalised groups, the power and control of religion and prejudice against disabled people. As the movie fast forwards to Quasimodo as a 20-year-old, after speaking to his pretend stone friends, he sneaks into the local festival where we meet heroine Esmeralda.

Esmeralda is not the first Disney Princess of colour. Jasmine from Aladdin came to our screens in 1992, followed by Pocahontas in 1995. However all three are arguably not the main character when it comes to storyline focus. It wasn’t until Disney’s Mulan, made in 1998, that we had the pleasure of following a non-white female lead's storyline throughout the whole movie. Despite this, I would argue Esmeralda’s story still deserves high recognition, she stands up to a volatile crowd for Quasimodo and her people:

“You speak of justice, though you are cruel to those most in need of your help.”

And is not defeated when it comes to standing up to racist and sexist Frollo.

Why Esmeralda’s character is strong:

  • She knows how to physically fight and protect herself and will not be easily wooed by charming Pheobus (at the beginning).

  • Esmeralda stands up for Quasimodo multiple times throughout the movie, “it appears we’ve crowned the wrong fool!”

  • She helps pull Pheobus out of the water when he’s injured despite him being a soldier and the perceived enemy.

  • When Esmeralda is about to be burned she rejects Frollo’s offer and spits in his face, standing up for her beliefs and morals.

  • She tricks the guards in entertaining ways which rallies the working people.

  • She sings a banging song, asking for God to help her people, rather than her.

Where the movie falls short:

The cast doing the voiceovers for each character are all white. It may have represented the Romani population better if Esmeralda’s voice was played by an actor with the same origins.

Esmeralda is sexualised twice. The first time is by Frollo as he envisions her naked in a fire. This brings up the topic of ‘fetishism,’ which is a form of racism that needs more awareness.

Frollo: “I was just imagining a rope around your neck.”

Esmeralda: “I know what you were imagining!”

This sexualisation is informative. However as we’re introduced to Esmeralda at the beginning, we are shown her pole dancing for money on stage. It’s debatable in what way to view this, is she making money as an independent woman by choice, or being forced to subject herself this way to feed herself and her pet goat?

It begs the question of female empowerment or disempowerment - which can be argued for sex workers in today’s modern world. If the message was to get this point across than great, however in 1996 it may have been more to do with the creators unconscious bias when it came to how the traveling community made their money.

The last thing that may make you roll your eyes in 2021, is that Esmeralda ends up falling in love with Pheobus at the end of the movie, disappointingly like Mulan. Whether you’re an old romantic or not, it instils the message that happiness comes from a hetrosexual relationship and the end goal is to get married.


The Hunchback of Notre Dame tackles important issues and themes throughout the movie. It was one of the first Disney movies that represented marginalized groups, prejudice against disabled people, the dark side of following religion and the sexualisation of women. Esmeralda is a strong female lead that would inspire many young people (and adults) today. The movie falls short on certain areas like true representation and typical hetrosexual relationships, however it is definitely one of the first progressive Disney movies ever made.

I'd love to know your thoughts?

Written by Amy Manson

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