Don't Conform, Transform
My friends and colleagues have written much and well about the Merida redesign by Disney. But others have wondered why it’s a big deal for Merida, the strong and feisty heroine of Disney’s Brave, to get a makeover that brought her into closer alignment with the physical representations of the other Disney Princesses, as shown below. Why does it matter if Merida is standing boldly looking at the audience and holding her bow and arrow or turned sideways, looking over her (much barer!) shoulder with no bow and arrow in sight?
It matters because people, and advertisers, use body language, facial expressions and head movements to communicate essential traits to others. These Princess poses of looking over the shoulder, eyes looking up, head downward, all communicate submission and passivity. But Merida’s original stance facing forward, shoulders up, holding a bow and arrow communicate assertiveness and action. It’s no use saying that you don’t think this is true, there’s vast research literature that supports that it’s true.
And whether we like to admit it or not, the media that we consume matters! It not only influences the way that we feel about ourselves, but the way kids learn to think about what it means to be a girl or a boy. And, ultimately, it influences the way that kids learn to look at what makes a girl valuable and important. You see, what many girls, including my 8-year-old Allie, loved about Merida was that she wasn’t the usual princess character. As Allie said in her own review of the movie, Brave,
“It was different from other princess movies. All of the (other) Disney princesses don’t look like real people. They just don’t have things that ordinary people would have, they’re too perfect. Merida is like a real person. She has freckles and hair that doesn’t look perfect. Her hair acts like real hair! Her brothers have ears that stick out, all the people in the story look like real people, they’re not perfect looking. I liked that.
And, Disney princesses don’t usually do anything wrong. I liked that Merida made mistakes but then was able to fix them and learn something.
I noticed that there’s not really a boy involved in the story that goes to save the day. She’s the one who’s saving the day, with her mom. In Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, the prince saves the day. But in Brave, Merida and her mom (and dad) save the day.
I liked how she could shoot arrows and ride horses. Even though she was a princess, she didn’t want to act all fancy and wear fancy dresses and things like that. I liked that she didn’t want to get married because most princesses in the movies really focus their life on getting married and things. Merida was different. She wanted to be a princess but be a normal person who could do her own thing.
In most Disney movies, the girl has something bad happen to her and someone saves her. In Brave something happens but she learns a lesson and has to solve the problem.”
You see, Merida is special, she’s a princess that is clearly different from the others. Little kids see that. That’s the reason that Merida matters. That’s the reason that parents are petitioning and arguing against the makeover. Merida offered kids a new version of what a princess could be. She offered a strong, courageous, imperfect and unromantic version of a princess. A princess that many little girls could love and relate to. This new version of Merida throws all that away.
Walt Disney believed in the power of imagination. He believed in the power of dreams. But the Disney consumer product division takes the powerful stories that the Disney/Pixar filmmakers like Brenda Chapman tell, and they make them fit a different mode. They create narrow pink and blue boxes and they tell us that’s where our kids belong. Disney can pretend that their new version of Merida doesn’t matter, but it does. It takes an assertive character and turns her into a passive one. When I showed Allie the newest picture of Merida, she said, “That’s not Merida.”
And you know what, I think she’s right.