Hey, how did a Disney princess end up on a Women's History Month countdown of female action-badasses?
It may sound strange, but Mulan is the best fit for the hero part of the equation out of every character who came close to consideration for this list.
Mulan isn't simply a heroine by virtue of being the main female character in her story. She's a classic, textbook, clever underdog epic hero of the kind you'll read about in story structure manuals with an invariable masculine pronoun. Only she's a woman. And she faces challenges that relate to being a woman, and she wins more style points than many a male hero struggling with the notorious blandness that often latches itself to classic hero types...
If you haven't seen the movie, here's how it goes:
Mulan is failing spectacularly in her attempts to impress her village matchmaker to make her family proud. She's smart and beautiful, but she has a bad habit of cutting corners (as so many smart folk do).
Mulan's elderly father gets drafted, and she's sure he won't survive another battle, so she disguises herself as a man, steals his conscription notice and armor, and runs away to join the army in his place, knowing she'll be executed if she's discovered.
Obviously, there's a lot of particular relevance here for women, the fight to develop an identity in a world that's that's always trying to relegate you to a narrow peripheral role, and it's a theme that's often done badly.
Well-meaning storytellers out to show how equal a heroine is to men often show nothing but how perfectly competent said heroine is and how unfair the world around her is, and only succeed in proving her unequal to her male counterparts in the field of being a hero the reader or viewer can enjoy rooting for. Mulan is the woman-out-to-prove-herself done right, because like every likeable male hero on a self-discovery, coming-of-age quest, she has to do more than show other people how wrong they are about how great she already is.
She has to struggle, learn, and grow.
That genius's laziness?
You may recognize Shang's role from 90% of all female movie characters usually depressingly classified as "strong and empowering."
While most of the women on this list are favorites I've acquired as an adult and have very adult universes to match, Mulan is the one hero I'll say, completely seriously, that every little girl should know. There are more male-led adventures like hers than any boy could experience in a lifetime, but for girls, she's an oasis in a massive void.
Now let's watch her take down the villain as directly, deliberately, and violently as any Disney heroine (or Disney protagonist, for that matter) has ever been allowed to, instead of watching him self-destruct in an unsatisfying accident.
A little wackiness helps her get away with this.