Makeovers and Mistakes: What Does Bravery Look Like?

Princess-Merida-before-an-009

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 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.

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As it is, the campaign quickly gained over 200,000 supporters and Disney have apparently withdrawn the new Merida concept from their website (though they have manufactured a doll version that people aren’t happy about either).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

“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?

Just call me Twilight Sparkle: a word on bronies

From the "Friendship is Magic" TV series

I feel like the internet has been keeping a magical secret from me. A pop subculture revelation waiting in the (Fluttershy) wings. This gender bending gem is of course, the phenomenon otherwise known as bronies.

Another online miracle sprout of the infamous 4chan, the term “brony” (bronies is the plural) refers to adult guys that are massively into My Little Pony. Specifically, bronies revere the Friendship is Magic genre of MLP (an animated TV series), not so much the plastic ones I remember from childhood (which seemed slightly more demure, and a lot less like Powerpuff Girls). Some say that brony-dom is just another ironic fad, but then again, these fellas are pretty hardcore. They’ve even started holding “Bronycon“- a convention for dudes to share their love of the sparkly horses and magical unicorns (etc) of the show.

A brony in action

Bronies don’t seem to fit any stereotypical gender models- they embrace their proclivity for wearing the rainbow wigs and tribute wings of their favourite characters, while still donning their baggy jeans and gaming-related tees. And although some haters may label this “super gay“, the whole thing doesn’t seem aligned with any particular sexual orientation. There are even reports that a brony, upon finding a like-minded man, will fist-bump and say “bro-hoof!” with his compadre.

Apparently the appeal is the “non-combative fandom” and peaceful friendship story lines. In fact the Executive Producer of the series (up until recently) Lauren Faust (she is so cute BTW), is being hailed as some kind of pony queen/god. It seems to me that Faust is preeetty much the internet version of Judith Butler.

The only thing that worries me about this whole situation is that by all definitions, I am out of the brony club. Turns out women watchers of the show are dubbed “pegasisters“, which seems like 100% lamer if you ask me. I’m just not sure why in amongst all of the brony challenges to normative masculinity we have to get all gender-binary all over again. But there you go.

So let’s keep watching this web-wide fanboy wonder unfold- but I implore you, always challenge the broninormative gender assumptions you encounter.