Turning marriage-sceptic Merida into Celtic Barbie was not a brave move, Disney

Female characters are still sidelined, stereotyped, and sexualised in movies and popular culture. Merida was the exception


In the past, Disney princesses haven’t always been known for their verve or independence. Great hair? Yes. Drive, dynamism and high self-worth? Not so much.

There’s Ariel, who gives up her voice for a man. Rapunzel, who sits around growing her hair, until she gets rescued from her tower by a prince. Sleeping Beauty, who spends most of her own movie asleep. Mulan, whose punishment for being a tomboy is to find herself declared “unfit for marriage”.

Even Tiana, the African-American star of The Princess and t he Frog , starts out as an ambitious businesswoman but, when it comes down to it, she decides she’d rather have the prince.

But all that was before Merida, the star of the 2012 Pixar co-production Brave . Merida is different, not just because she has red hair, a Scottish accent and wields a bow and arrow, but also because she categorically is not waiting for her prince to come. She repeatedly tells her mother that she doesn’t want to marry – not now, and perhaps not ever.

When it came out, several critics bemoaned the fact that Pixar had made “a princess movie”. Those critics seemed to be spectacularly missing the point – if anything, Brave was a brilliant subversion of the princess movie. Or maybe they just knew something the rest of us didn’t.

Last weekend, Disney held a “coronation ceremony” for Merida at Walt Disney World to officially admit her to the canon of Disney princesses. And, in the process, it gave her a not-so-subtle redesign.

Gone are the chubby cheeks, the slightly ruddy complexion, the wild hair. In their place is an elongated face complete with cheekbones; porcelain skin; tonged hair; and a tiny waist. Disney has even poured the new, more buxom Merida back into an off-the-shoulder version of the shiny dress she said she hated in the movie.

The result of this The Swan -style makeover is that Merida no longer looks like Merida: now, she is more like Celtic Barbie.

Predictably, there has been an outcry. A petition on the Change.org website urging Disney to return to the old version of the Scottish princess had garnered more than 115,000 signatures by the beginning of this week.

I showed the trussed-up Merida to the five- and six-year-old Brave fans of my acquaintance: the verdict was that she looked “more sparkly” but “less realistic”, and that they both liked the old Merida better.

So too does her creator, Brenda Chapman. In a letter to her local newspaper, the Marin Independent Journal , Chapman said she had written to Bob Iger, the Disney chairman, to tell him that she thought Merida’s makeover was “atrocious”.

She wrote: “When little girls say they like it because it’s more sparkly, that’s all fine and good but, subconsciously, they are soaking in the sexy ‘come hither’ look and the skinny aspect of the new version. It’s horrible! 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.”

Popular culture has a dearth of those kind of role models.

My six-year-old daughter has never heard of the Bechdel test, designed by graphic artist Alison Bechdel in 1985 to highlight gender bias in cinema. In order to pass the test, a film must have two named female characters, and they must have a meaningful conversation with each other about something other than a man. Surprisingly, few films meet all three requirements – the Oscar-winning Argo , for instance, is not among them.

In search of female stars
But my daughter doesn’t need to have heard of it, because she can count. Recently, in the middle of watching Harry Potter , she sprang off the sofa and came to find me to wonder why “the boys always get to be the star of the show”.

We went through all of her favourite DVDs, and those of her five-year-old brother, to test her thesis – and it turned out she was right. The Smurfs, The Lion King, Cars, Hop, Madagascar 3, Meet the Robinsons, Toy Story, Ratatouille, How to Train Your Dragon, Up, Finding Nemo: each depicts male characters going on a journey, with females consigned to supporting roles – principally that of love interest.

Only Tinkerbell , Monsters Inc and The Incredibles – and, despite their dubious core message, the Disney Princess movies – offer anything like decent storylines for girls.

It turns out that we haven’t just been buying the wrong DVDs. A recent study by researchers at the University of Southern California, which was published by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, looked at almost 12,000 speaking parts across a range of top-grossing films and TV shows between 2006 and 2011.

It found that females accounted for 28 per cent of the characters in family films; 30 per cent in the children’s TV shows; and 39 per cent in the prime-time programmes. One in four family films had a female narrator, and only 11 per cent had a gender-balanced cast.

Across all media, the female characters were much more likely to be dressed sexily or described in terms of their appearance, and far less likely to be depicted as working as, for example, company chief executives, scientists, politicians, judges or doctors. “Female characters are still sidelined, stereotyped, and sexualised in popular-entertainment content,” the researchers concluded. “Females are not only missing from popular media; when they are on screen, they seem to be there merely for decoration.”

All of this is what made Brave such a, well, brave movie for Disney and Pixar. Merida isn’t on screen as a foil for some male character’s journey. She is a princess who doesn’t fit the princess stereotype: throughout the entire movie, no one other than her mother comments on her looks. She knows what she wants and is strident, even aggressive, in pursuit of it.

It is just a shame that, in the end, Disney and Pixar didn’t have the courage of their own convictions, and subjected her to the Barbie treatment in the interest of selling a few more lunchboxes.

One of the other things the Geena Davis Institute looks at is what popular culture teaches the under-11s about the world of work. Her recent Harry Potter -inspired revelation has certainly taught my daughter one thing: that if she wants to see more girls as the “star of the show”, she’d better start applying for jobs at Pixar.

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