On a recent midnight excursion to Wal-Mart, my friend and I found ourselves wandering aimlessly down the Home Goods aisle when we were suddenly blinded by an overwhelming explosion of pink ribbons, pink sequins and pink glitter. The preschool-age bedding set that was the source of the ocular assault had been plastered with seam-to-seam images of cartoon ballerinas, each accompanied by the phrase, “I’m a Pretty Pretty Princess!”

“Either Wal-Mart just doesn’t care, or they honestly don’t know the difference between a princess and a ballerina,” I mused out loud.

“Probably a little of both,” my friend admitted as she examined a tulle-covered lampshade. “But aren’t they essentially the same thing at heart? I mean, a ballerina is just a damsel in distress that has to walk on her toes.”

Her opinion is understandable. Not many people have seen a ballet in person, and I’ve received more than one sarcastic excuse when I’ve asked people to tag along to a show with me (“Sorry, I left my top hat and monocle at home.”) Popular media and advertising outlets tend to portray ballet performances as snobby, shallow and lighthearted romps whose female characters have been cobbled together from a mixture of sunshine, glitter and marshmallow fluff — not exactly feminist role-model material.

Thankfully, the idea that female dancers are trapped in ballet roles that frame them as naïve and submissive dolls is way off target. In fact, even a quick glance at some of history’s most popular shows proves that many female characters not only defy commonly held gender stereotypes, but also blatantly challenge society and the supernatural while dealing their enemies a (metaphorical) kick in the tutu.

Just look at the heroine’s courage in “Giselle,” one of the romantic era’s most popular ballets. It’s a typical story of boy meets girl, except the boy eventually surprises her with his aristocratic lineage and she has heart failure. She is then summoned from her grave as a ghost by vengeful Slavic spirits called Wilis. (Ever wonder where the phrase “gives me the willies” comes from? Now you know.) Despite being a zombie-ghost, Giselle puts her foot down and refuses to let the Wilis’s queen dance her ex-boyfriend to death. She ends up holding off the hoard of angry spirits alone for an entire night, sending him safely on his way at sunrise.

“Coppélia” features a protagonist whose cleverness ends up saving her boyfriend’s immortal soul. Swanhilde is horrified when she discovers the local life-sized dollmaker has kidnapped and drugged her fiancée so that his life force can be used to power his most beloved creation. Knowing that a head-on assault would be useless against an evil wizard-toymaker, she breaks into his shop and secretly takes the doll’s place. After completing an impressively improvised dance routine to convince the sorcerer that his spell has succeeded, she winds up every doll in the room and sets them loose, allowing her to drag her woozy beau to safety during the ensuing chaos.

And that’s just the start. Kitri of “Don Quixote” follows her heart and refuses the arranged marriage her father desires. The eponymous protagonist of “Scheherazade” uses her wisdom and creativity to weave the 1,001 stories that keep a murderous king from killing her. A refreshing departure from Disney’s version, Ashton’s “Cinderella” takes place in one chorus dancer’s fairytale daydream about becoming a prima ballerina, which she later makes a reality after exploring her identity and proving to herself that she was capable of the part all along.

Of course, a few exceptions do exist. The title of “Sleeping Beauty” is self-explanatory and the ballet makes no secret of the prince’s desire to save the princess based solely on her attractively snoozing face. Modern versions have even changed the gift given by the fairy to the infant princess from “an ear for music” to “wisdom” in a halfhearted attempt to give her character some substance. I suppose it’s the thought that counts.

But for every sleeping beauty, there’s a fiery Carmen — the toughest character to ever wear a tutu. Based off of her operatic counterpart, Carmen is a gypsy who (depending on which variation is performed) smokes cigars, escapes from police custody and even stabs another woman in the face with a knife. Capricious and free-spirited, this feminist will allow no man to tie her down. Her scandalous promiscuity throughout the ballet highlights the double standards associated with female sexuality, and it comes as no surprise that the independent Carmen can only be subdued by death when she is killed by one of her jealous lovers.

Whether through the raw power of a firebird or the well-timed wit of a schoolgirl, ballet has quietly fostered a stunning cast of competent and courageous women. Although obscurity and popular culture often dilute them down into bright and bubbly airheads, it would nevertheless be unwise to underestimate a ballerina in character. Far from mere damsels, these heroines have bested fate, death and everything in between — all while standing on the tips of their toes.

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