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May 232013
 
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In Disney’s world, only sexed-up females are relevant.

by Beth Lyons

Over the past few weeks, the Walt Disney Company has faced on online uproar over their makeover of Merida, the protagonist of the film Brave. The makeover was in preparation for Merida’s induction to the Magic Kingdom’s Princess Hall of Fame and involved sexualizing the youthful character by making her older, more polished, and giving her a classic come-hither countenance (that kind of looks like a facelift, if I’m being perfectly honest).

Disney regularly gives the ol’ beautifying treatment to its female characters when it’s time for a new run of merchandise. Last holiday shopping season, for instance, Disney worked with Barneys New York to re-envision its classic characters (Mickey, Minnie, Daffy, Daisy, etc) as runway models.

In Brave, Merida won’t be married off, won’t sit around daintily, won’t even let her masses of red curls be symbolically restrained by a fancy headdress. She takes up space, makes herself heard and refuses to allow tradition to force her into marriage before she’s ready or interested.

The companies didn’t just slap some couture on the beloved characters' gentle, rounded figures, but stretched their bodies out to a model-esque 5’11” stature. The female characters were particularly lengthened and thinned, given legs that were a fraction of the size of (and much more exposed than) their male counterparts’. A few months before that, the company released their Disney Villains Beauty Line, which featured the zaftig Ursula slimmed down to the size of Sleeping Beauty’s supernaturally svelte Maleficent. Apparently even animal/human-hybrid cartoon characters need to be thin to be glamorous, and glamorous to be relevant.

Though we’ve seen Disney "work over" characters before, watching Merida’s image subjected to the sexing-up process felt like a particularly raw deal. Merida won our hearts by being the first Disney Princess to have a story that didn’t focus on romance, but on an adventure that isn’t ultimately about finding a prince.

Brave starts with Merida refusing to marry, setting the stage for the focus and driving force of the film: an exploration of Merida’s relationship with her mother, the Queen. After much showcasing of Merida’s strength of character, as well as her skills at archery and horseback riding (on a massive Clydesdale, no less), the film doesn’t give in to Disney tradition and end with a marriage, but with a celebration of the renewed bond between mother and daughter, after Merida saves the day.

Merida won’t be married off, won’t sit around daintily, won’t even let her masses of red curls be symbolically restrained by a fancy headdress. She takes up space, makes herself heard and refuses to allow tradition to force her into marriage before she’s ready or interested. In a genre where every other female protagonist is partnered (or hinted to be on the verge of partnering) with a man by the end of her story, Merida’s persistent and triumphant singledom is important.

Given Merida’s insistence on living life in her full, complicated, unkempt, wilful glory, it seems antithetical for her to have to be aged, polished and sexualized before she can be crowned as an official Disney Princess. This treatment seems like punishment.

Thanks to public outcry, Merida is a character who not only escaped a marriage she didn’t want and wasn’t ready for, but also escaped a Disney image overhaul (for now, at least).

In creating an older, sexualized version of Merida, Disney isn’t just presenting a different image of Merida but filling in the blanks of what Merida’s future looks like. Disney is telling us that despite her story being so different from all the other princesses, she ends up just like Belle, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty: made over according to traditional beauty standards, her bow and arrow taken away so she can stand pretty with the other ladies.

When images of this new Merida hit the Internet, criticism flowed. The woman who created Merida and co-directed Brave, Brenda Chapman, offered her thoughts in her local newspaper: “It’s horrible! Merida was created to break that mold — to give young girls a better, stronger role model, a more attainable role model, something of substance, not just a pretty face that waits around for romance.”

I agree with Chapman wholeheartedly.  This isn’t just a harmless makeover. It’s a message to girls and boys that what ultimately matters about a woman — even an animated one who doesn’t give a whit about being attractive to men — is her sex appeal (and there’s only one definition of what said appeal looks like).

Brenda Chapman and I aren’t the only ones who feel this way. Public outcry over Merida’s makeover was swift and loud, and Disney backed off quickly. Of course, Disney didn’t go so far as to admit that their sexing up of a role model for girls — one who is popular specifically because her story isn’t centred on her being appealing to men — was problematic. Rather, they pulled the image from their Princesses website, said that there were various renderings of Merida floating about and that there were no plans to move forward with the, ahem, “fancified depictions of Merida,” as Catherine Connors, editor in chief of Disney Interactive Family, put it in a blog post.

Connors’ post also defended Disney by suggesting that it’s actually the makeover’s critics who are focused too much on Merida’s appearance, reminding us that the character “is defined by far more important things than what she wears.” In other words, Disney’s compulsion to vamp up every one of its leading ladies (including giving its lone black Princess, Tiana, a nose-job before her induction into the Hall of Fame) is innocuous, and what’s actually diminishing the Princesses is . . . our questioning of that compulsion? Forgive me if I’m incredulous, but I take issue with the suggestion that critical thinking is the problem here.

While Disney might not grasp why their actions are problematic (or they fully grasp it but don’t care to change) and issue befuddling defences via blog posts, this is ultimately a victory — and not just for Merida’s image, but for her story. Thanks to public outcry, Merida is a character who not only escaped a marriage she didn’t want and wasn’t ready for, but also escaped a Disney image overhaul (for now, at least). What other Disney Princess can claim to possess such strength of character that they’re in control of their lives both onscreen and in the marketing department? As far as her accomplishments go, Merida’s remaining unmarried at the end of Brave might pale in comparison to the fact that she’s keeping her original look for the Princess Hall of Fame.

About Beth Lyons


Beth Lyons is YWCA Moncton's Associate Director. Her column alternates with that of Jody Dallaire and also focuses on social justice issues and women’s issues.

© Copyright 2013 Beth Lyons, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca
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  2 Responses to “Fans protest Merida’s makeover”

  1. Sad eh. I cringe when I see beautiful women, and worse, beautiful young women slathering makeup on, makeup made out of who knows what. You can imagine the beautiful body underneath and can only shake your head in amazement and sadness that, solely because of what capitalists who want to sell crap want, that person has hidden her natural beauty underneath frightful – and it's often just that – makeup that might be setting her up for cancer or some other problem down the road.
    Bright red lips and high heels. Those are worst, visually. Perfumes and hand creams are just as bad an offence and something that causes me to not only cringe, but, often, change seats on public transit. But plenty of guys will breathe it all in, literally and mentally, and so, absent some common sense on the part of the female consumer (and her peers and parents), How will that problem go away?
    One of the young female baristas at the coffee shop I go to, who has a boyfriend and, I'm sure, isn't looking for another, starting showing up for work there in super tight shorts and with lipstick on. And she does not look good with the lipstick on. Boy is it garish! And there's one of my male friends, who meets me there regularly, impressed all to hell by her new look. It helps when you are two dimensional and can't see more than what the physical eye shows you (even if you are a stand up person). But even there, I just don't see the plus, other than that other guys do.
    Capitalists, as we (here on this NDP-loving website; That's sarcasm) know, are mainly interested in making money and they work together to do so. They just don't care how they do it. So, If the script calls for an alien female who will give you nightmares (Klingons), they can pull it off with no problem. And they did, but also, apparently and with justification, felt that the population is softened up enough that you could slap some bright red lipstick on them and everyone would be okay with that. Paramount doesn't sell lipstick, to my knowledge. But other capitalists do, ergo… But, for those of you who can think, Doesn't that lipstick-wearing Klingon female ("Star Trek – The Wrath Of Khan") tell you something?

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