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Braving the princess cliché: Disney misses the mark with Merida’s makeover

Date: May 23, 2013 | Posted By: Sarah

Disney/Pixar’s 2012 animated film Brave was groundbreaking, not only for its exceptional graphics, but for its portrayal of an unconventional princess, the independent sharpshooter, Merida. Children and adults of all ages were delighted by Merida and the film has been a huge success—which is why many parents are outraged at Disney’s “makeover” of Merida for her official induction to the Disney princess lineup.

There is even a Change.org petition against the new Merida, which has gotten over 230,000 supporters. Such a vehement response to the portrayal of a fictional character seems a bit absurd, but the redesign essentially ignores the successes of Brave, and represents a step backward for Disney.

Images of old Merida next to new Merida.

Left: The Original Merida, Right: The New Merida.

In Brave, Merida represents the opposite of the traditional princess. What’s wonderful about her character in the film is that ultimately, she is able to escape from the traditional princess requirements and yet still be a princess.

Instead of just being a beautiful object, Merida uses her political power to enact change, and she is able to maintain her independence, adventurous lifestyle, and carefree appearance.

What’s also unique about Merida is that she seems very human. Unlike most other Disney princesses, she has human flaws and looks very realistic. Merida has an average-shaped body, a flushed and often dirty face, and wildly curly red hair. Children, who are often dirty, mussed, and disobedient, can relate to this.

The movie tells little girls that they can be a princess just the way they are, without having to conform to a traditional idea of femininity.

Ironically, the new Merida is dressed like a traditional princess, with a sparkly, shoulder-baring gown, perfectly curled hair and noticeable makeup.

Merida’s new outfit is almost laughable when compared to a symbolic scene in Brave, in which Merida must literally break free from her constraining fancy dress in order to shoot an arrow.

The new Merida has also lost her bow, a critical aspect of her character that allows her to stand up for herself and “fight for [her] own hand. Yet with a vapid, vacant expression, the new Merida seems to be perfectly content with representing everything the movie Merida is not.

On one level, it’s encouraging that Disney has officially inducted this unconventional Princess into their lineup. And truly, Merida’s makeover could have been a lot worse (her makeup seems minimal and her dress is fairly practical).

Head shots of all the Disney princesses.

Merida’s makeover was part of a redesign of all the Disney princesses, seen here.

But in restyling Merida, Disney is essentially saying that the movie Merida wasn’t a “real” Disney princess, that she needs makeup and traditional feminine characteristics to have their stamp of approval.

Some say the Change.org petition is an overreaction. One blogger pointed out that the fact that a woman is dressed up and wearing makeup shouldn’t negate her actions and character.

Will little girls look at the new Merida and immediately forget all the positive aspects of the movie Merida? Probably not. But given the immense influence the Disney Corporation has over children’s toys and products, the representation of their characters is significant.

Disney’s Princess Merida will be emblazoned on t-shirts, backpacks, and bedspreads, and thousands of children will buy Princess Merida dolls, which will likely come with a brush instead of a bow if Disney continues in this trajectory.

Merida’s creator, Brenda Chapman, is against the redesign too:

“[Disney has] been handed an opportunity on a silver platter to give their consumers something of more substance and quality — THAT WILL STILL SELL — and they have a total disregard for it in the name of their narrow minded view of what will make money,” she wrote. “I forget that Disney’s goal is to make money without concern for integrity. Silly me.”

Image of a Merida Barbie doll.

A Merida Barbie as part of Target’s “Ultimate Disney Princess” Collection.

Disney has taken notice of the negative response to the new Merida, and they’ve even taken the image off their website and replaced it with the original CG Merida.

Catherine Connors, blogger and editor in chief of Disney Interactive Family, defended the makeover, saying it wasn’t a character redesign but a special look for the coronation:

“That image doesn’t represent a ‘new’ Merida replacing an ‘old’ Merida: it’s just another iteration of Merida, who is much, much more than just red curls and a green dress, she wrote in a Babble post. “The gussied up Merida on the coronation invitation is Merida gussied up for one of the most important events of her princess career.”

Hopefully this is really the case, and we won’t be flooded with “gussied up” Merida products—because the movie Merida still wouldn’t be interested in dressing up for any occasion. And ultimately, thousands of children will still watch and love Brave, and Merida will always be a positive female role model.

It seems that Disney’s narrow definition of a Princess is unraveling faster than the seams of Merida’s corset.

Sarah Hansel is a 23-year-old human female. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a minor in Women and Gender Studies from UC Davis. In her free time she likes to read, play video games, draw, and garden.




What Do You Think?

15 Responses to Braving the princess cliché: Disney misses the mark with Merida’s makeover

  1. Splums on 05-24-2013

    Unfortunately this is not the case that new merchandising is not on sale. Most of the high street shops in the UK are selling clothing with the new image. Disney is just hoping this will go away...
    • Sarah Hansel on 05-24-2013

      Thanks for the info! That's interesting (and a bit disheartening) that the new images are being marketed in the UK.
  2. Margaret Severson on 05-24-2013

    I think what you said was well spoken. It is time that the world recognized that natural strength and beauty in every woman. Most of is don't have perfect figures and there are very few I know that are willing to wait for prince charming to rescue them. Thank you for defending us normal girls.
    • Sarah Hansel on 05-24-2013

      Thanks Margaret! It definitely seems like the "normal girl" is becoming more common in children's films. Now if only marketing teams would just stick with an original character instead of trying to conform her!
  3. Emily on 05-24-2013

    "It seems that Disney’s narrow definition of a Princess is unraveling faster than the seams of Merida’s corset."

    Kick ass final sentence to tie it all together.




    see what I did there? ;)
    • Sarah Hansel on 05-24-2013

      haha thanks girl :)
  4. Carlos on 05-24-2013

    "On one level," you write, "it’s encouraging that Disney has officially inducted this unconventional Princess into their lineup."

    True, but we should also recognize why Disney now has stronger female characters than in the past. It's because marketers know what sells. We have reached a point where enough people are familiar with, and tired of, the old princess model to raise a fuss. Knowing that, Disney and others pull out the revised, "liberated," Princess. (Though "liberated Princess" may be an oxymoron.) Yes, I'm sure the creators also believe in a stronger woman, but she's not there because Disney is ahead of the curve.

    The forward thinkers will always be ahead of the corporate thinkers. You'll always have to drag them in the direction that reality is changing. That's what posts like yours do. It takes time to educate them, and by the time they figure out the princess issue, they'll be behind on something else.

    Keep at it. The post is mightier than the sword.
    • Sarah Hansel on 05-25-2013

      Excellent response, Carlos. I agree with everything you said. I think what's especially interesting with this issue is the power the internet has had--the change.org petition and all the blog posts against the "new" Merida have really made a difference and caused Disney to take notice.
  5. Kate Allen on 05-25-2013

    You're spot on, lady! I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed that the dress new Merida wears is the same dress she has to tear apart in order to loose her arrows! (In fact, the only time she wears that dress when she does NOT have her bow, she's frowning, grumpy, and complaining to her mother that the dress is constricting and too tight, a complaint that falls on deaf ears. She's also only wearing it because she's about to become the prize of one of three young men. I can hear Princess Jasmine's commentary on being a prize for suitors now...)
    • Sarah Hansel on 05-25-2013

      I totally agree, Kate! I can sort of see where Disney wanted to "gussy her up" for the coronation, but to take away the bow is just ludicrous! And given the symbolism of the constricting fancy dress in the film, I think almost any fancy dress would be inappropriate for Merida.
  6. amy on 05-25-2013

    I think the latest post on animatedholiday.blogspot.com is also relevant in this discussion. :)
    • Sarah Hansel on 05-25-2013

      Thanks Amy! Those are really interesting posts. I love all the discussion that's happening on the internet about this issue. I especially like Animated Holiday's point about Pocahontas and Mulan's redesign, and it's interesting that she asserts that Merida should be a Disney princess at all.
      • Sarah Hansel on 05-25-2013

        **shouldn't be a Disney princess at all
  7. Raygirl on 06-16-2013

    Honestly, Merida should have never had coronation as a "Disney Princess". First of all, she's not completely a "Disney" princess. she was made also by Pixar, which Pixar portrays their characters differently from Disney. People are that stupid not to recognize that? Added, she honestly didn't do anything that would deem her a Disney Princess. What people fail to realize is that not just a pretty face makes you a princess, but also a person who has heroic and admirable qualities such as kindness. Even Mulan, who is WAAAYYY more heroic than Merida, has those qualities. And yet no one makes a big deal about her look. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Behind Merida's personality, people miss what the story of the movie was. Not for her to continue being WILD. The moral of that whole story was for her to learn to understand her mother and her mother to understand her. Honestly, the movie was not only about her! It was also about her mother. And if she can be a princess, that why not Kida from Atlantis the Lost empire? Or Megara from Hercules? You know why they weren't added? Because they lacked Heroic qualities. Maing her apart of the princess line up is obviously a marketing scam to begin with.
    • Sarah Hansel on 06-17-2013

      Raygirl-

      Thanks for your comment. Making Merida a Disney princess is definitely a marketing scheme and a response to Merida's popularity among young girls. This is the main reason her "makeover" is so dangerous.

      Good point about the fact that the movie isn't just about Merida--unlike the classic Princess tales, Brave isn't just a princess rescue story, it's a story about mothers and daughters and communication, and simplifying Merida to a Disney Princess does kind of take away from that.