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Braving the princess cliché: Disney misses the mark with Merida’s makeover

By May 23, 2013 15 Comments

Disney/Pixar’s 2012 animated film Brave was groundbreaking, not only for its exceptional graphics, but for its portrayal of an unconventional princess, the independent sharpshooter, Merida. Children and adults of all ages were delighted by Merida and the film has been a huge success—which is why many parents are outraged at Disney’s “makeover” of Merida for her official induction to the Disney princess lineup.

There is even a Change.org petition against the new Merida, which has gotten over 230,000 supporters. Such a vehement response to the portrayal of a fictional character seems a bit absurd, but the redesign essentially ignores the successes of Brave, and represents a step backward for Disney.

Images of old Merida next to new Merida.

Left: The Original Merida, Right: The New Merida.

In Brave, Merida represents the opposite of the traditional princess. What’s wonderful about her character in the film is that ultimately, she is able to escape from the traditional princess requirements and yet still be a princess.

Instead of just being a beautiful object, Merida uses her political power to enact change, and she is able to maintain her independence, adventurous lifestyle, and carefree appearance.

What’s also unique about Merida is that she seems very human. Unlike most other Disney princesses, she has human flaws and looks very realistic. Merida has an average-shaped body, a flushed and often dirty face, and wildly curly red hair. Children, who are often dirty, mussed, and disobedient, can relate to this.

The movie tells little girls that they can be a princess just the way they are, without having to conform to a traditional idea of femininity.

Ironically, the new Merida is dressed like a traditional princess, with a sparkly, shoulder-baring gown, perfectly curled hair and noticeable makeup.

Merida’s new outfit is almost laughable when compared to a symbolic scene in Brave, in which Merida must literally break free from her constraining fancy dress in order to shoot an arrow.

The new Merida has also lost her bow, a critical aspect of her character that allows her to stand up for herself and “fight for [her] own hand. Yet with a vapid, vacant expression, the new Merida seems to be perfectly content with representing everything the movie Merida is not.

On one level, it’s encouraging that Disney has officially inducted this unconventional Princess into their lineup. And truly, Merida’s makeover could have been a lot worse (her makeup seems minimal and her dress is fairly practical).

Head shots of all the Disney princesses.

Merida’s makeover was part of a redesign of all the Disney princesses, seen here.

But in restyling Merida, Disney is essentially saying that the movie Merida wasn’t a “real” Disney princess, that she needs makeup and traditional feminine characteristics to have their stamp of approval.

Some say the Change.org petition is an overreaction. One blogger pointed out that the fact that a woman is dressed up and wearing makeup shouldn’t negate her actions and character.

Will little girls look at the new Merida and immediately forget all the positive aspects of the movie Merida? Probably not. But given the immense influence the Disney Corporation has over children’s toys and products, the representation of their characters is significant.

Disney’s Princess Merida will be emblazoned on t-shirts, backpacks, and bedspreads, and thousands of children will buy Princess Merida dolls, which will likely come with a brush instead of a bow if Disney continues in this trajectory.

Merida’s creator, Brenda Chapman, is against the redesign too:

“[Disney has] been handed an opportunity on a silver platter to give their consumers something of more substance and quality — THAT WILL STILL SELL — and they have a total disregard for it in the name of their narrow minded view of what will make money,” she wrote. “I forget that Disney’s goal is to make money without concern for integrity. Silly me.”

Image of a Merida Barbie doll.

A Merida Barbie as part of Target’s “Ultimate Disney Princess” Collection.

Disney has taken notice of the negative response to the new Merida, and they’ve even taken the image off their website and replaced it with the original CG Merida.

Catherine Connors, blogger and editor in chief of Disney Interactive Family, defended the makeover, saying it wasn’t a character redesign but a special look for the coronation:

“That image doesn’t represent a ‘new’ Merida replacing an ‘old’ Merida: it’s just another iteration of Merida, who is much, much more than just red curls and a green dress, she wrote in a Babble post. “The gussied up Merida on the coronation invitation is Merida gussied up for one of the most important events of her princess career.”

Hopefully this is really the case, and we won’t be flooded with “gussied up” Merida products—because the movie Merida still wouldn’t be interested in dressing up for any occasion. And ultimately, thousands of children will still watch and love Brave, and Merida will always be a positive female role model.

It seems that Disney’s narrow definition of a Princess is unraveling faster than the seams of Merida’s corset.

Sarah Hansel is a 23-year-old human female. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a minor in Women and Gender Studies from UC Davis. In her free time she likes to read, play video games, draw, and garden.