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 change.org 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.
As it is, the campaign quickly gained over 200,000 supporters and Disney have apparently withdrawn the new Merida concept from their website (though they have manufactured a doll version that people aren’t happy about either).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.”
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?
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?