Standing up to the Mouse House, & the ‘Sexualisation’ of Princess Merida

CHARLEY MEAKIN

Last week, Disney fans made something fantastic happen. On the same day that this was happening:

a petition set up three days earlier by blogger ‘A Mighty Girl’ was spiralling rapidly around the internet, gathering scores of signatures (currently the total stands at 228,000 and counting) including those of actress Lily Cole, writer Peggy Orenstein and perhaps most vitally from one of the creative forces behind the development of the movie of topic, ex-Pixar director Brenda Chapman.

Carolyn Danckaert and Aaron Smith, the co-founders of the A Mighty Girl site, launched the petition three days earlier, in response to images of 2012’s Brave heroine Merida in a new and marginally disconcerting 2D format circulating the internet, prior to her official inauguration to the Disney Prince brand (and subsequent consumer products):

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princess merida before after

 In the film (for those who haven’t seen it), Merida is a young, free-spirited Scottish princess, whose mother and father try to marry her off to some pretty sketchy suitors. Merida refuses, and runs away – striking a deal with a witch to change her fate, with terrible consequences. Merida the character can be summed up very nicely in this clip:

As social media and internet forums globally exploded with accusations of Disney having ‘sexualised’  Merida, modifying her to look more like ‘arm candy’, fans expressed their outrage at the fact that Disney marketers appear not to have even watched their own film by changing Merida’s outfit to the dress which she literally breaks free from. In fairness to Disney, *that dress* has actually featured in merchandise for the film right from its theatrical release:

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But in the context of the rest of the changes I can see why the dress has attracted so much attention. A lot of the focus of the criticism is on the lower neckline and off-the-shoulder style of the outfit, her trimmed waistline, and her more mature appearance. Danckaert and Smith’s petition – addressed directly to CEO Robert Iger – calls for Disney to ‘keep Merida Brave’, implying that the ‘paler reflection of [the character’s] former self without the spark and the ‘you go girl’ quality’ represent something entirely unlike the ‘empowering role model’ that Merida is in the film. The makeover is a ‘tremendous disservice’ to those millions of children who look up to Merida. Even The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart got involved, criticising the makeover and Disney’s subsequent justification (and also making a scathing point about the role Disney plays in the lives of American children….).

I liked Stewart’s comment, because it addresses a more worrying concern that I think has been lost amid the arguments of sexualisation. It could be argued that the 2D version of Merida is not so much sexualised as feminised – she looks a lot less tomboy-esque than she appears in the film, and more girly, which allows her to fit neatly in with the other princesses in the canon. But they’ve also aged her – and it’s this decision that I don’t understand. Disney adapting their characters (specifically their princesses, see Mulan and Rapunzel) from screen to production line isn’t new, and inspires the same criticism every time they do it for negating all the good, empowering things that that particular character stands for and turning her into a subservient non-entity. That’s not what’s happened here. Catherine Connors, the editor in chief of Disney Interactive Family, defended this ‘iteration’ of the character as one of several (as with all Disney characters, apparently), and emphasises that Merida is ‘defined by far more important things than what she wears’. She’s right, Merida is defined by many things, like imagination, ambition, determination, stubbornness and irrationality – the kind of traits you find in children, something which Brave responsibly accepts and embraces.  This ‘iteration’ of Merida has the appearance of a self-assured young adult, with a gleam in her eye which looks distressingly manipulative. Yes, Disney has a history of sanitising everything within their reach (the company recently tried to trademark the Day of the Dead festival) but Merida hasn’t been sanitised in the transition from CG to 2D – if anything, an endearing character has been adapted into something more ‘bolshy’ and a bit less likable. If I’m completely honest, this version of Merida looks like a bit of a bitch.

It took more than a week for Disney to give an official response to the backlash, claiming that the ‘new’ Merida is merely an image produced in celebration of her official coronation, and that both designs of the character will feature on merchandise, depending on the nature of the individual product. While I’m sure that is the case now, the fact that the company have (discreetly) withdrawn all references to Merida or to her coronation from their website makes me believe that those at the top of the company certainly weren’t prepared for the scale of rebellion against their revisions. Any official images of the accused Merida in a Disney Princess line-up have been hastily demolished, and even an in-depth internet search only finds this one left:

line up

Did 200,000 people with one website really just defeat the notoriously domineering House of Mouse? Technically, no, as Disney have declared both versions will definitely still remain in circulation, but I do think the media storm might just have an effect on future marketing strategies. How much of an effect remains to be seen, but I did find this image that made me smile:

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2 thoughts on “Standing up to the Mouse House, & the ‘Sexualisation’ of Princess Merida

    • For the purpose of this piece, the connotations of the word imply the relevant changes made, but yes- it is a description that requires some consideration before use- CLM

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