Keeping Merida “brave”

What’s wrong with Disney princesses?

A small victory for Merida doesn’t change the company’s dysfunctional branding



If there’s one thing you can count on Disney for, it’s creating strong leading female characters in its movies – and then reducing them to wide-eyed idiots in their merchandising. The Belle who obsessed on books and the Tiana who scrimped and saved for her own restaurant, the warrior Mulan and the wise Pocahontas – they’ve all been reduced to flowing hair and off-the-shoulder dresses and coy looks in their post-cinematic incarnations. But when the mouse tried to give its “Brave” heroine Merida a “Stepford Wives” makeover, it finally went too far.

Last week, Disney announced that it was adding the headstrong, flame-haired heroine to its “Princess” collection. But it was the revamped image of Merida — her waist nipped, her eyes elongated, her messy tangle of hair a sexy tumble, her plain dress a shimmer of bling and her trademark bow and arrow nowhere to be seen – that set parents’ jaws dropping. Disney blandly told Yahoo Shine that “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.” But it didn’t quell the disgust.

Fans quickly launched a petition against the “skinnier, sexier and more mature in appearance” Merida, asking Disney to “Keep Our Hero Brave!” And in an email to the Marin Independent Journal, “Brave’s” Oscar-winning co-writer and co-director  Brenda Chapman — who originally envisioned Merida as “a different kind of princess,” said, “There is an irresponsibility to this decision that is appalling for women and young girls. Disney marketing and the powers that be that allow them to do such things should be ashamed of themselves … I think it’s atrocious what they have done to Merida. When little girls say they like it 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. It’s horrible! Merida was created to break that mold — to give young girls a better, stronger role model, a more attainable role model, something of substance, not just a pretty face that waits around for romance.”

And so, while not acknowledging anything weird about its clumsy attempt at restyling, Disney quietly put the original messy, freckly, slightly overbitey, “strong, fearless, adventurous” Merida on its Princess page. She’s definitely the “one of these things that’s not like the others” among her sultry cohorts, but it’s a difference that’s beautiful. Of all the princesses, Merida is now the one who most looks like a normal teenage girl, with an open smile and a gaze that’s bright and direct – a far cry from the creepily “Hello sailor” action the other ladies are working.

But this isn’t quite a victory for substance over sexualization. Think Disney’s going to stop rolling out the Merida merchandise, including the shiny, glossy action figure, now? Doubtful. More than the Merida issue, though, there’s the whole bizarre, absurdly lucrative, damn near inescapable Princess Industrial Complex itself.

I have two daughters who have spent many happy years playing dress-up and skipping off to school in tutus. I am a girly girl myself; a woman who owns her own tiara, and who recently had lunch with someone who said, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in pants.” But there’s something deeply disturbing and wrongheaded about the Disney princessization of American girlhood. The princesses, in their merchandise state, aren’t heroines. They’re just strange, sparkly happy endings. Not to be a buzzkill, but you do know that Belle, in her poufy yellow dress, is a prisoner, right? And that the pink-clad Ariel lining the toy aisle has recently sacrificed her power of speech? I’m just saying, context.

And if the chipper image of these pretty, happy princesses is a little out of whack, even odder is the more recent deluge of baby and toddler merch, known, freakily enough, as “My First Disney Princess” toys. Yep, skilled, smart characters are being shrunk down to helpless infants. Now baby Cinderella is getting married. And Baby Ariel has legs. Legs. I don’t even understand that. Your inconsistency is vexing, baby princesses!

The message – one that is now rammed down our daughters’ throats from birth, literally – is not one of effort or even action. Princesses don’t become princesses; they simply are princesses, even as babies. That Disney has left Merida relatively alone in one small corner of its brand doesn’t change that. There’s no narrative, no adventure, in the Disney princess world —  just the simpering image of pretty girls with crowns on their heads. I just hope that no matter what Disney tries to pull, we as parents and consumers don’t forget the stories behind those princesses. Because in the movie, when they try to cram Merida into that lovely blue gown that her doll counterpart now smilingly sports, she grouses, “Curse this dress.” And she stretches herself right out of it.


We Need More Movies Featuring Strong and Smart Girls

via, January 22, 2013

I can’t agree with all points raised in this TED Talk* — The Wizard of Oz movie doesn’t deliver exactly the same feminist message as the books — but I love that Stokes’ talks about how movies can help teach boys to be inspired by girls. The white male normative tales don’t allow much room for learning about anyone other than white men. And this world is mostly filled with people who aren’t white men. So, you know, we need some new stories, and fast. Creating more movies with strong female characters is good for boys and girls, and for society as a whole.


Where Are the Girls in Children’s Media?

by Laura Beck,, January 30, 2013


Lack of representation in media is a big problem for women, and it might be an even bigger problem for girls. With so much of today’s children’s media aimed at boys, it can be hard for girls to know where they belong in the equation. Many mainstream kid’s movies go out of their way to hide or obscure their female protagonists — if they even exist in the first place. Stories that do show strong girls and women are often marketed with a strong “girl power!” angle, which often excludes boys from watching (girl power = girl movie) and thereby learning to recognize and respect how great girls are. Even worse, many of the most famous female-centric stories feature the same tired characters and tropes — damsels in distress or an icy bitch queen. These stories go out of their way to make their female characters either unremittingly holy or unquestionably evil. It brings to mind a quote from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “If woman has no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person…infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme…But this is a woman in fiction.”

All in all, not a great message for girls.

Margot Magowan writes about the “girl gone missing” topic quite often, and recently tackled a slew of children’s movie posters from 2013.

She finds:

Of the 21 movie posters for young kids, only 4 appear to feature a female protagonist; 16 appear to feature a male protagonist and 10 of those movies are named for the male star. In one case, “Peabody and Mr. Sherman,” the movie is titled for its 2 male protagonists.

That’s quite a gap. One that makes no sense, especially considering so many of the characters are CARTOONS. Cartoons that could easily adapt to feature a strong girl story, but instead rely on the same bullshit as adult movies. Very creative, everyone. Great job.

Of course, Magowan recognizes that she can’t judge these movies because she hasn’t seen them yet — but she makes a strong argument for movie posters as their own media. “Even if a kid doesn’t see the movie, she sees the ads everywhere. She hears the movie titles,” she writes.

She continues:

Of the 4 starring females, just two are titled for that star. It’s the small budget 7 million film from Moscow, “Snow Queen”, that was brave enough to name its film after a female. “Frozen” is the title chosen for Disney’s version, the same movie studio that changed “Rapunzel” to “Tangled,” to obscure its female star. Fittingly, in the poster for “Frozen,” the woman’s image also fades into the background.

Both “Dorothy” and “Epic,” buffer the female on the poster with males, Epic with a constellation of them and “Dorothy” by listing no less than 7 males at the top of the poster.

Of course, not only is the amount of featured women small, but the ones who do make the cut are not always the strongest characters. There are the obvious problems with prejudice, but there’s also the character who Magowan refers to as “Minority Feisty.”

I’ll let her explain:

No matter how many Minority Feisty there are in an animated film, they are represented as a minority. The irony is, of course, that females are not a minority, not a special interest, not even a fringe group. Females are, in fact, half of the population. Girls are half of the kid population. Why aren’t they represented that way in movies made for children?

I call the Minority Feisty “Feisty” because that is, invariably, the adjective reviewers use to describe the “strong” female character in an animated film. “Feisty” is diminutive. It is what you call someone who plays at being powerful, not someone who is actually powerful. Would you ever call Superman “feisty?” How would he feel if you did?

The role of the Minority Feisty, like a cheerleader or First Lady, is to help the male star along on his important quest. Children need to see females front and center, as protagonists, as the heroes of their own stories.

This character is particularly troubling because there’s often no boy feisty version in programs targeted at girls — most likely because it’s assumed boys don’t watch girls shows. So, Minority Feisty is added to boy movies to give girls something, and everyone’s happy. Except boys are very rarely afforded the opportunity of seeing positive portrayals of strong girls. The girls they know are always along for the (boy’s) ride.

You might even add to this and say that by showing boys these female portrayals, you are building a very disturbed image of who and what women are. Since young kids are forming their first opinions around much of the media they consume, what message does that send boys? If the only representations of women they see plastered all over town are pristine princesses, untouchable crazies, or obliging cheerleaders — what are they supposed to think?

No, movies, TV, and their surrounding media — not only posters but fast and packaged foods, diapers, clothing, toys, etc. — cannot make up for shitty parenting, but it can make it more difficult to raise boys who view girls as fellow human beings.

As for how it leaves girls feeling, this is probably something many of us can relate to. As a child, I strived for the perfection of a Disney Princess, perhaps subconsciously knowing I’d never achieve that, I started imagining myself in the shoes of more adventurous male characters. I’ve talked to many women who’ve had similar experiences, this sort of transference. Lacking decent female role models, it’s not surprising many girls live stories through the eyes of boys and men.

There’s a passage in Margaret Cho’s hilarious 2002 autobiography I’m the One That I Want that talks about this in terms of race. This is paraphrased, but she basically says that, as a young girls, she couldn’t wait to grow up and become white like everyone on TV. Heartbreaking, and I think this experience resonates with many people. When you don’t see yourself reflected in media, you push yourself into it.

Now, a personal anecdote. I have a friend who’s a writer working in children’s TV. She’s constantly taking meetings and pitching stories, and she told me when she first started in the business, she pitched stories with girl leads. However, after being told to change the protagonist to a male character more than a few times — and once being told to actually turn the movie into a live action rom com for adult women!? — she now pitches almost entirely male-driven stories. And guess what? She’s selling.

This can probably best be explained by demographic expectations — we know girls will watch movies with boys in them, but are told boys don’t want to watch the girlie stuff. That might be true, but only because of the strict rules for girl’s characters and stories. They have no agency within this world. Until we get more girls as strong leads in stories that cater to all kids, how can things change? This is a serious question, it’s not rhetorical.

Magowan powerfully concludes:

As you look at the posters below, ask yourself: Who looks like the star/ leader/ protagonist of this movie? What would this poster look like if the positions, number of male characters, and title references were switched to female characters? Why are females, half of the kid population, presented as a minority in children’s films? Why is the imaginary world, a place where anything should be possible, sexist at all?

These are all good, fair questions in need of answers and accountability.

Reel Girl’s Gallery of Girls Gone Missing From Children’s Movies in 2013

This entry was posted in consumerism, girl culture, heroines, princesses. Bookmark the permalink.

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