Over the last few days, I’ve heard a little outrage on the part of a few Disney fans over the slight makeover that’s taking place for Princess Merida, the heroine of Pixar’s film Brave. You see, Disney’s princesses are a huge franchise for them, and when they put out a film featuring a new princess, they tend to follow up on it with a big ceremony at one of the theme parks for her “coronation,” officially making her part of the family. Merida joined Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Ariel, Pocahontas, Mulan, Jasmine, Tiana, and Rapunzel earlier today.
The furor is not over her joining the “Official” Disney Princesses, making her the first Pixar character to do so. The problem is with the redesign the character is sporting for her appearance on Princess-branded merchandise, which (let’s be honest) is the point of this whole endeavor anyway. And while I agree that there’s a problem here, I think this is one of those cases where people are letting their anger lead them to statements of such hyperbole that they’re hurting their cause overall.
I hear people complaining that they’re trying to sexualize Merida. The phrase “slutting her up” has been tossed about rather liberally. And frankly, guys, I don’t really see it. The character in the “after” picture may be more traditionally cartoon-beautiful than the “before,” but that’s a far cry from turning her into a sex object. I read American superhero comic books all the time, I know what I’m talking about here. And she’s not even as tarted up as some of her sister princesses, if you want to get technical. Hell, Ariel just goes around in a clamshell bikini all the time. Only the top half of the bikini, in fact. Shouting things like this, starting a Change.org petition over it… it kinda makes a person seem a little like a zealot, and nobody listens to zealots, not even when they have a legitimate point in there somewhere past the noise.
No, the problem I see isn’t so much one of sex as of softening the character. Merida, for those of you who didn’t see Brave, was a girl whose mother tried to force her into an arranged marriage. Merida proceeded to thwart her mother’s plan by proving herself more than a match for the three princes who tried to win her hand, slinging around a bow and arrow in a method that would make Hawkeye of the Avengers take notes. This is all in the first few minutes of the film, by the way, and the bulk of the story is a sweet tale about a mother and daughter growing to understand and respect one another, plus magic bears. But the point of Merida is that she is a character who is not defined by anyone else — not her parents, not her prince. She didn’t need to be rescued like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, she’s her own woman and prefers it that way. Hell, she’s the only one of the princesses who’s still single at the end of her movie, and she’s perfectly happy that way.
The “new” Merida wears a slightly fancier version of her iconic dress (a dress she hated in the movie, incidentally, but I’m willing to let that slide for the sake of branding and marketing, because that’s what drives all of this), with a slimmer waist and hair that isn’t quite as wild as it was originally. Most bothersome to me, though, are the small changes to the face — it looks like she’s been covered in eyeshadow and lipstick, something the movie Merida most certainly would reject.
A minor reworking of the character is inevitable, if for no other reason than that she has to be on-model with the other princesses. The same thing happened to the previous CGI princess, Rapunzel, but her changes were less dramatic. Seeing a Merida like this, made up and missing her trademark bow and arrow, takes away her uniqueness. The character on the right fits in fine with the other Disney princesses, but that’s sort of the problem. She fits in. She no longer stands out, and that’s what made her such a fun character in the first place.
This isn’t a life-changing, cataclysmic change. The princesses have very little to do story-wise anyway — after their films they seem to exist mostly to serve as models for dolls and to put their pictures on everything from pajamas to notebooks. (My niece, Maggie, has a child-size fold-out sofa stamped with the earlier princesses. She sits on it when she watches Brave.) But want to see Merida with her bow, taking aim, and standing on her own. That’s what made her different, that’s what made her worth remembering. It’s what sets her apart not only from the iconic princesses, but also from forgotten Disney princesses like The Black Cauldron‘s Eilonwy or Atlantis: The Lost Empire’s Kida. I like to think that Merida earned her spot on that platform by being who she is. Why take that away from her?
Let’s just hope we don’t have this conversation all over again when Disney decides to drop Princess Leia in the group.