There's a lot to celebrate in Disney Pixar's new film, Brave. But when I learned that Pixar would be making a movie with its first female protagonist (after thirteen previous movies, all featuring male heroes), I was immediately excited. My spirits were quickly quelled by learning that Merida, Brave's heroine, is -- sigh -- a princess.
Walk into any toy store and you will have little trouble finding the girls' section, the part of the store is invariably doused in Pepto Bismol pink. Disney first began marketing their ten royal heroines as a group separately from the release of their individual movies in 2000, selling them strictly as a princess brand. Now the brand garners a hearty $4 billion annually for Disney, and is the largest commercial franchise marketed at young girls in the world.
By now, this branding is ubiquitous, but when I was growing up, my dress-up chest overflowed with costumes other than princess dresses. Certainly, I donned Cinderella's heels and lily-pad dress frequently, but I dressed up just as often as a pirate, a colonial pioneer, and Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz." These days, the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in Disney World has become an incredibly popular spot for little girls; the Boutique offers three (supposedly different) makeovers: Fairytale Princess, Disney Diva, and Pop Princess. Girls as young as three are given a new hairstyle, glam manicure, and a face-full of make-up. The choices for little boys abound: pirates, pilots, knights, race-car drivers. There is hardly a Prince Charming to be found.
So what's the harm in princesses? Nothing, inherently. It becomes a problem when being pretty and marrying a prince is presented as the only happy ending for girls. Princess culture primes girls to be overly focused on their body and appearance, delivering them to a market of advertisers that has proved more than willing to make money on women's bodily insecurities. It equates girlhood with beauty and romance. What's more, studies have shown time and time again that women and girls who consume media that reduces their status to their looks are consistently more depressed, anxious, and have lower self-esteem. (For a spectacular and heartfelt look at the Princess industry, as well as the consequences of it, pick up Peggy Orenstein's 2011 book Cinderella Ate My Daughter.)
Needless to say, I was nervous that Pixar's first stab at a female protagonist could potentially be foiled by her branding as a princess. But in many ways, Brave ditches the conventional story arc of the princess movie. The movie begins when Merida refuses to marry any of the three suitors presented to her, preferring archery and horseback-riding over princessly pursuits. She's far more skillful, feisty, and interesting than any of the men slated to charm her.
The relationship between Merida and her mother, the queen who tries to persuade her to conform to a more typical princess role, is central to the plot in Brave (I won’t spoil it). This is another refreshing take after the slew of princess movies that feature a dead or otherwise absent mother: Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, the Little Mermaid...the list goes on. While the queen is in many ways the foil to Merida, at least their relationship was given depth and complexity. (Contrast this to the trope of Evil Stepmothers jealous of their step-daughters' beauty and/or youth found in many of the Disney films.)
Merida’s freedom comes at the cost of the prosperity of the entire kingdom--perhaps a metaphor for the everywoman’s struggle to balance their own ambitions with the needs of those who depend upon them. This may have something to do with the (regrettable) decision to make her a princess. Explains Katherine Sarafian, a producer of Brave, “We tried making her the blacksmith’s daughter and the milkmaid in various things. There [are] no stakes in the story where, you know, the peace of the kingdom and the traditions are all at stake.”
I don't buy it. I’d love to see Disney create more complex female figures who aren’t designated as “special” because of their birth or marriage to a handsome prince. I’d love to see them rendered convincingly so we would have a stake in her as an audience; this doesn’t appear to be a problem for Pixar’s male protagonists, who are not of noble birth. I’d love to see a heroine that shows girls they can be judged and validated because of their achievements, tenacity, and individuality the way their male counterparts are. Now that’s a happily-ever-after.