Recently Disney released a redesign of their most recent princess, Merida, from the film Brave, which sexualized her image and placed her more in line with the Disney princesses who came before her.
Brenda Chapman, writer and co-director of the film, and a host of parents expressed their distaste with the re-design of Merida through a Change.org petition that garnered over 200,000 signatures. In response, Disney has removed the sexualized image from its website, and hopefully will pursue a more accurate representation of Brave’s heroine moving forward.
Disney princess have a history of representing thin, sexualized, and often white beauty (the first princess who was not white was Jasmine, introduced in 1992). The princesses both reflect and perpetuate standards of beauty in Western society, and have done so for decades. With expansions into more and more products, from dresses to dolls to lunchboxes and backpacks and plastic dishware, their influence only continues to grow and inform culture.
Growing up, Belle from Beauty and the Beast was my favorite Disney princess. I had two reasons for this: 1. She was the princess that looked the most like me, as we are both white and both have dark brown hair and dark brown eyes. 2. She loved books, and I too, loved books. As a child I desperately wished for her pretty yellow ball gown and her incredible library.
Disney’s princesses, through their films and aggressive merchandising campaigns following those films, become icons for many young children. The images of these princesses that Disney promotes impact and inform children’s understanding of themselves, their appearances, and their goals. Child psychologist Jennifer L. Hardstein theorizes that these films create a “princess syndrome” whereby young girls are taught that if they are pretty enough they will find happiness, love, and fulfillment.
Whether or not you agree with Hardstein, many of these films present harmful images that promote narrow ideals of beauty and happiness. Most of the images presented through these princesses are of women who are incredibly thin with large breasts, and for most princesses the storyline ends with marriage or other romantic fulfillment. While some princess have goals that extend beyond romance, Brave is the first of these films that does not show a happy ending replete with handsome prince and happily-ever-after. Merida similarly rejects girly dresses and other typical trappings of Disney princesses, and is depicted in a plainer, un-sexualized fashion.
This difference is, of course, intentional. Chapman writes of her character, "Merida was created to break that mould … 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."
Merida is meant to exemplify bravery, athleticism, and other less-typical princess traits that create a substantive role model for children. In redesigning her, Disney has undone this work, and reinforces the idea that what ultimately matters is to be pretty, not smart or funny or kind or brave.
If we want to teach children that what matters in life is who they are as people, how they treat others, and other values of care and community, we need to support products that exemplify these values. It is excellent that Disney seems to be abandoning its redesign process, and I hope that as they move forward with what is sure to be a full line of Merida-themed merchandise they use the original images of Merida from the film, and promote all the excellent qualities Merida exemplifies so well.