Everyone is up in arms about Merida’s transformation as she enters into the halls of the Disney Princess “Hall of Fame.” Here is the comparison photo being passed around the internet depicting Merida from Pixar’s movie Brave (2012) and the new redesign. (Disney’s current website only shows the movie version.)
The film’s award-winning co-director, Brenda Chapman spoke out against the new “sexy” and “sparkly” Merida. She told Marin Independent Journal that ”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.”
A petition was formed at change.org. Angry fans are outraged by the not-so-subtle changes in Merida’s visual appearance. Her costume now has an off-the-shoulder, low-cut neckline and a tight-fitting curvy bodice. Her newly sculpted face have cat-like eyes with accented upper lids and higher cheek-bones.
Is this a problem? Not really
Sure, the Disney Princess machine has accentuated the sexuality of a character who really didn’t need it visually or otherwise. Brave’s narrative and Merida’s character reject gender conformity. Merida isn’t a typical Princess. She rips off her head gear and refuses to marry. The new girlie Merida undermines the movie’s basic theme.
However, Disney has redesigned all its princesses and has been doing it this for decades. It is nothing new. Look at Cinderella in the original movie from 1950.
Now look at her on the Disney site today:
Look at Belle in Beauty and the Beast (1992)
Look at Belle now:
Right from the beginning, Disney Princesses are imagined as the images of “ideal” beauty – a concept borrowed from the old fairy tale narrative itself. At the point in time when each movie was made, the concept of ideal beauty was different. Therefore, each Princess was originally designed differently.
By the time Disney left the fairy tale genre, this Princess character motif was an ingrained in the Disney Princess formula. Even those female “princesses” who are external to the traditional fairy tale found themselves created under the same standard. Borrowing from my personal study on Disney Princesses:
Esquire voted Pocahontas, “an original American Princess,” one of the top “Women we love” in August 1995 (Rudnick, 67). Although the article is tongue-in-cheek, Paul Rudnick describes her as “lusciously sexual” and writes, “she is a Bond girl, a forthright little greenpiece seeking racial justice”(67).
Each original princess is a time capsule of sorts. She demonstrates what typified “ideal” beauty to the American mainstream audience at a specific point in time. In order to keep marketing the princesses, Disney must re-invent them to reflect trends in beauty. It is similar to the re-invention of Mickey Mouse overtime. The product needs to be fresh and culturally relevant
Disney relies on these characters’ marketability. Disney needs little girls to want to be these characters. It is part of the storytelling process. It is a part of the marketing process. It is a part of our culture (for better or worse.) It is true that the princesses are very distilled, hyper-realized visual icons of femininity but they do have a place within our greater cultural text.
If this is normal Disney behavior, why has there been such outrage with Merida? Why don’t we protest the accentuated sexuality and sparkle of the other princesses? Merida is too young a character. She didn’t need a full make-over yet. She was relevant as she was. As Disney has admitted, they reimagined her in order to remove her Pixar-look and impose the Princess Collection standards. She had to fit-in.
In theory, I don’t mind that work. I love watching the visual evolution of these Disney creations. It’s great cultural fodder. However, Merida’s change was abrupt and contradicts her narrative purpose. Disney could have been more careful.
Other than that, it is time to move on and take the cultural battle somewhere else…