Makeovers and Mistakes: What Does Bravery Look Like?


Merida “before” (left) and “after” (right)

The recent controversy over Disney’s “makeover” of Brave character Merida, has been troubling me. CGI-Merida, hero of the 2012 the film, was stylistically re-designed as part of a re-branding of many of the Disney Princesses. Last week, website A Mighty Girl started a petition to have Disney revoke Merida’s new look. The content of the petition gives a sense of the kind of reaction the new image garnered. It states:

The redesign of Merida in advance of her official induction to the Disney Princess collection does a tremendous disservice to the millions of children for whom Merida is an empowering role model who speaks to girls’ capacity to be change agents in the world rather than just trophies to be admired. Moreover, by making her skinnier, sexier and more mature in appearance, you are sending a message to girls that the original, realistic, teenage-appearing version of Merida is inferior; that for girls and women to have value — to be recognized as true princesses — they must conform to a narrow definition of beauty.

What is perhaps more concerning than the "new" looks is how their heads each differ vastly in size. Snow White looks like she could literally eat Cinderella.

What is perhaps more concerning than the “new” looks is how their heads each differ vastly in size. Snow White looks like she could literally eat Cinderella.

As it is, the campaign quickly gained over 200,000 supporters and Disney have apparently withdrawn the new Merida concept from their website (though they have manufactured a doll version that people aren’t happy about either). I first heard about Merida’s new look through my university women’s department, and my response was (literally, a Facebook comment): “Brave can be sexy too?” But it seems I was in the minority with this viewpoint. And while I can support the argument that representations of princesses should perhaps include more diversity in general, I have found most of the reactions deeply troubling and indeed to be inadvertantly reinforcing gender stereotypes. Let’s consider what people have been saying about Merida and the “makeover” (I’ve highlighted some of the more troubling bits):

  • The Mail Online writes: “Unlike most other Disney heroines, the animation character of Princess Merida looked like a real girl
  • The LA Times writes: “Among the modifications: Merida’s long mane of red curls has been defrizzed, her neckline has plunged, her waistline has narrowed and her wide-eyed, round face has been angled. She’s also got eyeliner.”
  • The Christian Science Monitor writes: “Let’s review the chief problems:They took a strong character and weakened her; They took a natural beauty and glamorized her; They took a youthful 16-year-old and made her look like she’s 22; They disrespected the fact that Merida is a princess who goes against the grain, eschewing the trappings of being a princess in favor of being an individual.”
  • Jezebel writes: “As you can see, her eyes are wider, her waist is smaller, her hair is sleeker, and her dress is sparkly as shit.”
  • Brave co-director Brenda Chapman has also been reported as saying, “‘When little girls say they like [the new toy] because it’s more sparkly, that’s all fine and good but, subconsciously, they are soaking in the sexy “come-hither” look and the skinny aspect of the new version.”

“Keep Merida Brave!”: one of the most problematic slogans of the campaign

However, there was one voice that went against the grain. Disney. Executive Catherine Connors writes: “It doesn’t matter what iterations of Merida are out there in the culture – Merida is Merida, and the essence of who she is is defined by the girls who embrace her”

While I remain skeptical about the intentions of any big-wigs intent on selling things to people, I can’t help but agree with Connors. Aside from the fact that I think a lot of the descriptions sensationalised how different the new image is (“plunging” neckline?!), much of the backlash focused on how the image of “new” Merida somehow inherently contained messages that:

  • There is such a thing as looking like a real girl (and it’s not “new” Merida!)
  • Things like wearing makeup and being sparkly/glamorous signify weakness (never bravery!)
  • This is all part of the sexualisation and brainwashing of children (let’s not teach our children critical thinking skills, let’s try and eliminate these kinds of representations!)

As someone who cares a lot about the possibilities of “femme” and subverting expectations despite “heteronormative” appearances, the language and assumptions of the Merida petition concern me. When we suggest chucking out one representation for another, what other norms are we in fact supporting or reinforcing? What limits are we too putting on expression?

My Little Ponies have changed a lot over the years... yet they are still just as awesome (if not awesomer) than ever

My Little Ponies have changed a lot over the years… yet they are still as awesome as ever

I love this post from The Afictionado that argues for acknowledging that all kinds of different “types” of girls can wield power. They write: “You can be a tomboy or a girly girl, or a hard-working student or a lazy scatterbrain, and it’s all okay. And any of these qualities still allows you to pick up your wand and save the world.”

So, when Disney says, “Merida exemplifies what it means to be a Disney Princess through being brave, passionate, and confident, and she remains the same strong and determined Merida from the movie whose inner qualities have inspired moms and daughters around the world” maybe we should listen. Maybe we need to take a look at the kind of assumptions we are making about what a “typically” feminine appearance can versus cannot possibly signify. After all, isn’t courage about being, not looking, brave?

14 thoughts on “Makeovers and Mistakes: What Does Bravery Look Like?

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  3. Thanks for your reply and your clarification – interesting convo – having a quick think cause I am still bothered – I want to put more thinking energy to this! In a nut shell as soon as we get into those internal discourses – in which “bravery” is presented as internal to a bounded individual I get a bit tetchy! will get back to you!

  4. I think your My Little Pony picture is a great example of marketing changes – the original, chubby pony, then the sleek, teeny-bopper-esque pony (I never liked those), followed, at long last, by an adaptation of the original pony that is still round and cute, but also embraces a modern aesthetic.
    As for Merida, Disney has stated it was only meant as a temporary marketing device. I think the bigger problem is the “Marketing Merida” is, for lack of a better term, stupid looking – a cheap and dorky looking aesthetic. On the other hand, the original Merida has rich and interesting textures.

  5. I dont agree with Helen’s, “Children are too busy learning how to spell to understand the more complex symbolism of raiment. They cannot themselves be “s-xualised” or impacted by the s-xual significance of clothing; it’s a handful of diseased adults that do that for reasons far more complex and terrifying that anything we can read in the Target catalogue”. I would argue the very problem isnt because of a ‘handful of deseased” adults (an understanding which situates pedaphilia in the over there realm, it’s those others who are bad not “us” etcetera) and i would ague that children are as understanding of “complex” symbolism as adults – in varying ways, depending on what access folk have had to even begin to language such things, above and beyond their age in years on the planet. If children see cloth and adults see meaning – how does that happen? – when does a child suddenly enter into “meaninghood”? How does this fit with “teaching our children critical thinking skills”, because why would we want them to see “meaning” instead of “cloth” if it’s so unfortuante. Whilst I am not saying that Adults do not strongly influence their children, nor disagreeing that adults “sexualise” (however we are understanding that?) children, I think these relationships are possibly a little bit more interesting than is suggested in this conversation. I also generally agree that ” It’s great to ask questions about the dominant line – but we need to also interrogate the dominant response’. But if the only spaces are these two – wherein lies the problem. So if a solution is to present a variety of acknowledgments “that all kinds of different “types” of girls can wield power”, I am curious to how this might look outside individual family homes, particularly as we are situated within a larger culture that “over” privilages something like Disney. So while leaving something “open” for continued questioning I have to wonder ‘questioning by whom”?. Whilst I have no trouble “troubling” Disney’s change to Merida, and am happy for it to be challenged in a variety of ways, saying that a response is “dominant” and therefore problematic is the beginning of a conversation rather than the end of it! I am much more interested in how this response gained traction, or what sort of influence or significance it has in the lives of those who speak it. Finally what is courage about??? Are we so sure of its meaning that we can use it to support Disney??

    • Hi Rohnda,
      You certainly raise some interesting points and questions. I for the most part agree with your analysis of Razer’s article. I think it is important to acknowledge that children do obviously have access to “meaning” making (as if you could neatly separate out adult access to these things vs. children’s). Having said that, I think we do need to acknowledge how we reproduce certain discourses and how we often get caught up in making claims that certain objects or representations are inherently bad or good for children, when we are making those moralistic judgements based around a particular value system we adhere to as adults.
      In relation to my questioning of the response to Merida, I have aimed to open up a space for discussion. I do argue that what Disney has said about Merida’s new look should perhaps be given more thought. While I don’t suggest condemning Disney in the problematic way that we have seen play out, I don’t think I argue for supporting Disney and all of their actions per say. I’m not saying that the response has been problematic *because* it is dominant, I took lengths to point out exactly what kinds of problematic things were iterated in that dominant response. As I argued, a certain kind of language (that in its very critique sets up a certain set of gender norms) arose during the conversation, that shut down rather than opened up possibilities for imagining gender, womanhood, femininity and indeed bravery.
      I hope this clarifies some of the position I was/am advocating. I do find your insights (and questioning of me) very useful though! So feel free to challenge what I have offered above!

  6. I agree to a point, but I also think part of the problem is that they’re marketing to kids. No parent wants their daughter (really… of any age…) to become obsessed with curling their hair and putting on makeup and trying to look ‘hot’, which let’s be honest, that’s kinda what Disney is going for. I don’t think it’s a new problem either, certainly not starting with the revamping of Merida. I BEGGED for seashells when I was 5 and I knew that that flesh colored costume was NOT what Ariel was wearing. My father almost dragged me and my sister out of the theater when Jasmine came onscreen for fear we’d get fixated on that too, and never let us forget how inappropriate her costume was, and how ladies don’t dress like that (or ask for Jasmine costumes for Halloween). The problem I see is, that finally with Merida, Disney kind of lightened up on the sexy. And that was nice. And then… then they just decided to make her a full-on hip-having, bedroom eyes sparklefest. And that has to be hard on parents. I know the Disney princesses were always a sore subject for mine, and as an adult, I can kind of now see why. I don’t really think the problem is how they market, I think it’s their target audience.

    As for the sexualisation and brainwashing of children and not teaching them critical thinking skills, I think that’s a really good point, but I also know that some kids (I was basically this way into my late teens…) are simply not good at wrapping their heads around the whole sex thing. Or being sexy, or what that means or why it matters. And you don’t want someone who has no concept of sex to want to dress sexy. So getting ‘sexy’ mixed up with ‘cool’ or ‘pretty’ is a problem if that person doesn’t actually understand the difference.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Loren. But maybe some of the limits your parents put on what you were exposed to (instead of talking through them with you) contributed in some way to why you were as you say “not good at wrapping [your] head around the whole sex thing”. I’m just saying, rather than arguing for an elimination of particular forms of “girl”, let’s leave them open for continued questioning.

      • Oh, it wasn’t the lack of discussion. Being limited was not my parent’s problem. We were exposed to quite a bit, and they talked about sex, sexuality, and society very openly with all their kids. I just didn’t connect ‘sexy’ to sex, and it wasn’t for lack of trying on my parents’ part.

        I’m talking about not being in a frame of mind (because you are not a sexual being yet) to connect those dots. Aren’t there any movies that you watched when you were a kid, that had fairly obvious sex scenes but you weren’t even aware of it until you were older? That’s really what I’m getting at. Parents don’t want their kids acting in a way the kid thinks is ‘normal’, when it’s not (especially with the whole, ‘there are people who are sexually attracted to children out there’ thing). Wearing just seashells or a Jasmine top, or whatever Pocahontas is wearing is a problem when your kid is constantly trying to take her top off at school. And telling her not to and why she shouldn’t, well, that just doesn’t work for all kids.

        I would never argue you shouldn’t openly discuss these issues with your children, and having different women portrayed in the media and discussing that is all great and fine, but it’s an uphill battle when EVERY cartoon princess is pretty much sexualized. With the notable exception of Mulan, I’d argue that every single one of the Disney princesses are giving parents headaches for this, and other, reasons.

        I personally do have a problem with the Disney Princesses. There is a lack of ‘strong’ women in there; of women who aren’t constantly in need of a man, and saving. At the same time, there are “virtues” being displayed that aren’t there in reality – my pet peeve is Belle who EVERYONE is like ‘oh she reads’ and ‘she’s smart’. She’s a grown woman reading fairy tales. It’s not differential calculus. Is the fact that she can actually read in the Disney universe the impressive thing?

        I can see why people, especially parents, get flustered by the Disney Princesses. I would not consider them great role models.

        Sorry for writing a novel here. But uh… yeah, I just don’t want you to get the wrong impression about my parents. They both talked about this stuff a lot. My dad was more of a prude when it came to how his daughters actually dressed in public, which I think is understandable, (although not being a dad, I can’t know for sure). The same cannot be said of my mother…

      • Yeah I felt bad after I’d posted that last comment, I didn’t mean to make such a snap judgement on your parents like that. I was just connecting up what you had said about what you were saying they had said about what is “proper” with how you felt about sex as a young adult. Apologies if I was out of line.
        I hear your thoughts on the princesses. I think it’s really great to challenge them and not just go along with any simple arguments that would justify them as empowered (like Belle and her book reading). I really enjoyed some of the princesses as a kid, and much of my response to them stems from want to make the debates we have about how “damaging” they are to girls more complex – after all, I ended up heading off to write a gender PhD 🙂
        I think that one of the most important things we can do is promote thinking. The problem I had with this campaign was not the argument that the Disney Princesses should be more diverse (include different kinds of girls). What I am objecting to is the kind of dialogue that emerged, that serves to reinforce the notion that looking a certain way = not brave. I think that’s problematic.
        But on the other hand, this debate has started (at the very least) this conversation between you and I, and that’s productive. Just as long as there’s room for all perspectives. I think sometimes we get used to learning what is “good” and what is “bad” when it comes to representations of women. It’s great to ask questions about the dominant line – but we need to also interrogate the dominant response.

      • Thanks for the article – it was great! I pretty much agree with Helen. Kids don’t get the complexities of dress, it’s an adult-made thing we do. I do think this discussion is well worth having, and interesting, and frankly, it’s hard for me to like the Disney princesses as an adult, although I loved them up till Mulan, she was really the last one I latched onto, and I think in some ways they broke the mold with Mulan, and after that I started noticing the princess trend actually bothered me quite a bit (for all the main reasons people complain about). I definitely agree that how you dress is not an accurate portrayal of your character, and I have to admit, Merida is no exception to that rule. No matter how she’s portrayed, ‘brave’ is not how you look. And having said that, I must also confess to some serious hypocrisy and admit that I freaking love Megera.

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