About a week ago, the entire Internet (even in places that don’t usually care much about the animation industry) was engaged in fiery debate about the worrying news coming from everybody’s favourite corporation, Disney: the protagonist of the Pixar film “Brave”, Scottish princess Merida, has been officially declared a “Disney Princess”- and Disney gave her a shiny new makeover for the occasion: a sparkly dress, bigger breasts, a smaller waist and a full face of makeup to enhance her newfound flirty gaze.
The creator of Merida herself, director Brenda Chapman (infamously fired by Pixar shortly before the film’s release) spoke against the makeover, feminists everywhere spoke against it as well, while an online petition against the new Merida gathered over 200 000 signatures.
Other people commented that the changes were imperceptible, or that we shouldn’t waste our time thinking about a cartoon when children are still starving in Somalia. Individuals who had never touched a pencil in artistic purposes explained that all the changes were probably just a side effect trom translating a CGI character to 2D graphics. Commenters from the gaming website IGN (whose public has a strong presence of 13-year old boys, or adults who are still essentially 13-year old boys) opined that Merida’s remodeling is a welcome change, since thinner women are better, and nobody wants to see fat chicks, not even in cartoons.
Disney seemed to be giving in to the pressure and it was reported at some point that they had retired the images of the new Merida from their US website, but soon, a Disney employee explained that while the official image of Merida was always meant to remain the one we saw in the film, the new design was created especially for her coronation as a Disney princess and will continue to be used occasionally on promotional products.
I don’t know what I could say that hasn’t been said before, on the topic of Merida’s makeover- the changes are subtle, but persuasive, and seem to have been thought out by somebody who hasn’t actually seen the movie. I feel less inclined to focus on the physical changes as much as on the personality changes they imply: the protagonist of „Brave” is a teenage girl who doesn’t understand why she should do certain things with her life and not others, or dress and behave in a certain way and not another, just because she was born with XX chromosomes. The film openly criticizes the idea that femininity can be imposed or defined in an absolute manner, or that any officially female human has to be „feminine” in the exact manner society dictates- or at all, as a matter of fact. Also, Merida is a more realistic princess than other Disney protagonists, some of which are way too young for dating, never mind marriage, and yet become the wives of charming princes who, in modern times, would do jail time for paedophilia (turns out that Walt’s Snow White was only 14 years old!). Even if the universe of „Brave” is a fantasy one as well, it brings forth some fundamental truths: in real life, princesses rarely married a man of their choice; they were usually more or less sold to the best political choice at a very young age. Merida rebels against this tradition, and „Brave” deconstructs the „Disney princess” stereotype by showing us that the classic „Disney princess” , far from being an ideal, was more likely to be a very unhappy young girl, brutally severed from her childhood and her own hopes and dreams. Disney’s marketing team chose to ignore this message altogether; by depicting Merida as elegant, smiley and happy to be a princess, they have committed a betrayal towards the character similar to a Star Wars poster showing Han Solo having a friendly cup of coffee and a game of Scrabble with Darth Vader. Disney’s Merida has been assimilated by what she hates most.
There is also another aspect of the story that I haven’t heard about as much- personally, I felt offended by Merida’s labeling as a „Disney princess” to begin with, even more than by her makeover. It was expected, yes, knowing that Disney owns Pixar; but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing. It’s not just that the rebel heroine will now get a smiling doppelganger at Disneyland and millions of cheap dolls named after her. The film industry divides movies in two categories: movies with male protagonists, which are for everybody, and movies with female protagonists, which are automatically, regardless of subject, filed as „chick flicks”, a much-despised genre, considered shallow, stupid and worthless. Film producers see it impossible that men would believe a story about women to be in any way important or interesting. Because of that, female protagonists are usually poorly written and very rare outside of „chick flicks” (which tend to be very poorly written overall, and focused on topics such as marriage and shoes). This phenomenon has also affected family movies; as a result, classic “Disney princess” films are considered to be for little girls, whereas Pixar films, which never had a female protagonist before “Brave”, are films for everyone.
„Brave” was a chance to break the mould: with Pixar prestige on its side and potential to be likeable for people of both genders and all ages, it could have changed the preconceived idea that a film about a girl (who is also a princess on top of it!) and her mother is automatically girls-only territory, a land of tiaras and pink bows. But it’s over now: Merida is officially a “Disney princess” herself. She has been stamped with the uncool label of girly things, and she can no longer be rescued, or liked un-ironically.
And all this even though Merida is not even a Disney creation. (Not that Disney is any better with their own characters- take for instance Mulan, the fierce chinese warrior. All the Mulan dolls and other promotional materials show her wearing a pink, shiny kimono instead of her soldier armour. Let us therefore rejoice that Disney never managed to buy Studio Ghibli- otherwise, who knows what sparkly sequined dress we’d see on a „Princess Mononoke” doll soon enough.
In the picture: Brave cosplayers in Glasgow. Photo by Nadia Barbu