Disney is being flailed by critics for producing a glammed-up, thinner and sorta sexualized version of Princess Merida, from the Pixar film Brave, for her entry into the Disney Princesses Collection. The "new, improved" Merida may continue Disney's age-old habit of making female characters into wide-eyed, shapely babes, but it deliberately contradicts the entire point of the original Merida character.
Some readers are probably going, "WTF?" at this point, maybe thinking, "It's a cartoon, pal, what's the big deal?" It's a big deal because the new version sends a message to kids that the preferred look and attitude for girls is sexy and doe-eyed rather than spunky and resourceful. Kids pick up on those kinds of cultural messages a lot more than many parents realize, and it's high time Disney realized that the world has changed since the Snow White days of 1939.
In the '90s, I saw a ton of kids' films while my wife and I raised our first child; I often winced at animated films' frequent depictions of female characters as silly weaklings with big, flirty eyes (the intelligent, assertive Belle in Disney's Beauty and the Beast was a breath of fresh air). After "the kid" outgrew juvenile films, I still kept an interest in what was happening in the genre, which is why I thought it was a great move (albeit an "it's about time" one) when Brave was first announced. Here was a film with a strong, fearless female character, who slung a bow over her arm and went out to grab her future, rather than just waiting around for someone else to decide it for her. And - most incredibly - she looked, you know, normal. Or as normal as a cartoon character can manage. Unruly hair, non-bedroom eyes, a smart mouth and a confident, brassy outlook. Of course, the bow and arrow set a certain tone, too.
When the movie was released, a veritable wave of "thank yous" and "hoorays" from grateful parents washed over the Disney company. Enough kudos that they should have seen the current tsunami of criticism coming when they turned the tomboy-ish, assertive Merida into a stereotypical Disney babe from the company's Sleeping Beauty era. To top off the ludicrous transformation, the "new" Princess Merida is sans bow and arrows, and wears an overly tight gown the character rejected in the movie.
Merida's creator and co-director of the film, Brenda Chapman, calls the re-design of her character "atrocious ... Merida was created to break the 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." Enough hell has been raised over the major Disney goof - how can they so badly misunderstand much of their audience? - an online petition campaign has already collected more than 100,000 signatures. I signed it, and I urge anyone reading this who thinks girls need better film role models than sensuous babes to sign it too. The campaign is seemingly having an effect, as the original Merida's image has replaced the new version on the official Princess website. The real test, however, will come when it's time for Disney to start cranking out their Princess Collection dolls.