Last week, I spent a bit of time with a 5-year-old girl with flaming red hair who lives in Vienna, Austria, where some very real princesses once lived (she has a hat that reads "Sisi, Princess of Austria"). But this little girl is a fan of imaginary princesses, too. When we met, she was sporting pink Sleeping Beauty socks, and had even adorned her brother's Cars backpack with a Cinderella sticker.
Even in the land of the Hapsburgs, the Disney princesses still reign.
In case you haven't met any 5-year-olds lately, here's the dirt (or pixie dust) on Disney Princesses: In 2000, a Disney executive named Andy Mooney came up with the idea to market products branded with Disney princess characters in the entertainment giant’s back catalog. Old guard princesses like Snow White and Cinderella were posed next to new princesses like Pocahontas and Mulan. This was a new strategy for the company, and it worked frighteningly well -- so well, in fact, that Peggy Orenstein wrote a fantastic New York Times essay and book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, deriding the princess fever that infected every facet of children's pop culture starting in the early 2000s.
Every so often, Disney refreshes its Princess line by adding another movie character to the crew. Last week, Disney officially inducted Merida, the heroine of the movie Brave, into the Princess sorority. In the process, she also received a wee bit of a makeover. While movie Merida is childlike in her features, wears a simple dress, and carries a bow and quiver, her Princess alter ego has an hourglass figure, a face covered in makeup, a gold-embroidered off-the-shoulder gown, and has no weapon at all.
Jezebel and other feminist blogs were not pleased, nor was Brave writer and co-director Brenda Chapman, who said the redesign is a "blatantly sexist marketing move based on money." She had based Merida on her own daughter, Emma. On Wednesday, Disney announced it would pull the images of made-over Merida from its website, asserting they were part of a one-time-only promotion for Merida's "coronation."
Brave is the first Pixar release with a female lead, but long before its premiere, blogger Linda Holmes penned a great essay begging the studio to make a movie about a girl with pluck – and not one about a princess. "If we had to wait for your thirteenth movie for you to make one with a girl at the center,” she wrote, “couldn't you have chosen something — something — for her to be that could compete with plucky robots and adventurous space toys?" As it turned out, Merida was all that and more: She rides horses, fights bears, casts spells and, of course, shoots arrows. For a movie about female characters, it's not a particularly feminine film. After all, the other female lead spends most of her screen time as a bear.
Much has already been written about how terrible a hyper-feminine version of Merida is for little girls, who should have role models who aren't covered in sparkles and wrapped in corsets and lace. I agree with that, for sure. But I also grew up playing with an Ariel doll, and she spent a large portion of her days trying on various shell bikinis. It didn't mess me up for life, make me want to be a princess or think I should be waif-thin and boy-crazy. My grandfather once gave me a Barbie doll for my birthday (against my mother's wishes) and asked, "Do you want to look like Barbie?" I looked at him like he was nuts. "Of course not! Why would I want that?" I would like to think that most little girls are smart enough to know they’re not defined by the dolls they play with or the costumes they wear.
But Merida is a lost opportunity for Disney and Pixar. Aside from being female, there’s nothing in Merida's character that defines her as "for boys" or "for girls." In the real world, some boys try on dresses, some girls play with monster trucks. Kids didn't ask to separate toy stores into boy aisles and girl aisles; adults did that for them. No little girl ever said, "Mommy, why isn't my doll's waist small enough?" Adults made up those beauty standards all on their own. The Disney Princess line is solidly in a "girl" category, where boys are not -- by our narrow definitions of gender -- supposed to go. Boys need strong female role models as much as girls do. They need to see that girls are capable of fighting as well as caring, being brave as well as being kind. How great would it be to see a little boy galloping around his backyard pretending to save his Scottish village from a bear, imaginary Merida at his side?
Although Disney has retracted its initial re-imagining of Merida, the company is unlikely to withdraw its re-invention of Belle or Mulan. In the Princess line of products, Mulan typically wears a gown, not her battle garb. Check out the differences between the 1991 movie poster for Beauty and the Beast, and the poster for the 3D re-release in 2012:
The colors on Belle’s dress are incorrect in the original poster (she wears blue and white in the movie), but she’s depicted without the Beast (he's lurking within the clouds), in the outfit she wears for 95 percent of the film. In the updated version, she’s in her ball gown, gazing lovingly -- not an active stance, but a passive one.
Whatever else Disney claims that Princesses are about (kindness, bravery, doing gymnastics), they're really about selling dresses and dolls. I hope that Merida, in her movie form, will continue to be a beacon of anti-Princess for girls who don't want to wear a sparkly dress -- even if Disney executives see it differently.