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

Posted May 23, 2013

Written by Beth Lyons



(This post originally appeared in the Times & Transcript on May 23rd, 2013, and is shared with permission.)

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 it’s thanks to 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. 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, it felt like a particularly raw deal to watch Merida’s image be subjected to the sexing-up process. 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. It seems like punishment.

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 Ms. 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).

Ms. 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.

Ms. 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.

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