In case you thought it was only comics that unnecessarily sexed up female characters, fear not: It happens in all media — and the newest guilty party is Disney.
On Saturday, the studio inducted Merida of the Pixar film Brave as the 11th Disney Princess. More accurately, it inducted some alternate-reality Merida who’s thinner, wears her dress off her shoulder and exposes more cleavage. A redesign of the character appeared on the corporation’s website in advance of the induction at Disney World, and faster than you can say “Wonder Woman’s pants,” someone launched a Change.org petition, which is now approaching 200,000 signatures. Disney removed the images of the redesigned Merida, not that it matters; the Internet never forgets.
I’m being somewhat flip about this but the whole thing is kind of amazing. I loved Brave, and thought it was the animated-princess story that was so overdue. It was so refreshing to watch an animated movie that stepped away from cliches to give us a female lead who isn’t pining after a man, can skillfully defend herself, and looks and acts reasonably like a girl approximately her age. And it not once felt like an agenda movie. Really, it’s pretty stupid that these kinds of characteristics feel like such a breath of fresh air.
A major entertainment company should have a sense of its own properties — Disney must know what Brave represented to segments of its audiences. Surely executives read reviews, or had assistants read to them if they are above such things. Maybe a quick summary in a PowerPoint presentation? I just don’t understand how they could be so tone deaf when preparing Merida for the Disney Princess induction.
It’s worth pointing out that the informal tradition of Disney princesses has now become a formal brand, which is why the character was redesigned. The Disney Princess brand has books, CDs, playsets and other merchandise that essentially mashes together these characters into the same world, or at least the same packaging. Putting together disparate characters from Pocahontas, Mulan and Cinderella might seem too jarring, so the distinctive styles are toned down to create a unified look that the redesigned Princesses all share. While I think they go a little too far with some of them, making some almost unrecognizable from their movie counterparts, it makes sense from a branding and marketing standpoint. However, redesigning Merida isn’t the problem; it’s the choices they made. Giving her a tiny waist, and exchanging her bow and arrows for excessive makeup and an alluring look that ages her a good 10 years is counter to so much of the character. It’s almost as if Disney didn’t watch its own movie. In the aftermath of the protests and condemnations, you’ll notice that Merida’s page now uses an image from the movie, while every other Princess has the more unified look. They also no longer show the group shot (another oddity is that Tiana from The Princess and the Frog is missing in the Visit the Princesses menu at the very bottom of the page).
So did Disney listen to the protests? Maybe. Such a response isn’t without precedent. Earlier this month, Disney backed down from registering a trademark for the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos after a Change.org petition charged the corporation with trying to exploit Mexican religion and culture. Of course, Disney said it dropped the filing because it decided to go with a different name for its movie, making no explicit mention of public pressure. But it’s not too hard to read between the lines and see the blowback at least partly influenced the decision.
Time will tell if Disney eventually releases a new redesign for Merida. About a week ago, a Disney spokesman told the Disney fan blog Inside the Magic that different style guides would be used for different products, “so some images of Merida may be in 2D and some may still be 3D – it all depends on the product and what type of art is most appropriate.” The petition continued to gain signatures, and the film’s co-director/screenwriter Brenda Chapman protested the changes, calling them “blatant sexist marketing.” In the meantime, Disney downplayed the redesign by making changes to the Disney Princess website and using a pretty faithful real-life version of the character for the coronation.
I’m hoping this whole incident will inspire Disney to rethink the Disney Princess designs. Maybe instead the studio should go for something more inspired, such as Amy Mebberson’s adorable yet feisty Pocket Princesses fan cartoons. That may not ever happen but it’s encouraging to know Disney isn’t completely tone deaf as to why Merida is important to young girls. Maybe I was just feeling sappy, but this “I am a Princess” video of a young archer explaining how she overcame the difficulties of being one of the only girls into archery kind of got me. It shows that while big entertainment companies can make some questionable choices, it’s really encouraging when they get it right.