Thursday, July 16, 2015

Merida is a wonderful Action Princess

I felt inspired today, so I was looking back on what I've written about before and realized I never posted my thesis paper from the Women in Art course I took last year. With Merida about to make her debut on Once Upon a Time, now seems a good opportunity to remember where she came from! Some may also remember my post on female characters in Disney/Pixar films from a few years back, too.

Archetypes of Female Representation:
Merida from Disney-Pixar’s Brave

Back in the summer of 2012, I was watching an episode of the comedy show, The Colbert Report, in which the host, Stephen Colbert, called out critics of Pixar’s latest movie, Brave, for complaining that the children’s film was about a lesbian princess. Many news magazines and entertainment blogs were writing about it, speculating that a strong, independent female who wants to fight like one of the boys and isn’t interested in marriage can't be anything other than gay. It was incredibly bizarre to witness the internet and news media explode over this issue of a fictional character’s sexual orientation, and I couldn’t help but compare the ongoing debate to other times when a female warrior equated lesbianism, such as in the television show Xena: Warrior Princess (Stein). It all seemed rather silly to me, because it shouldn’t matter if a female is gay or not, she should be allowed to be a warrior and decide if she is ready for romance or not! Plus, this film was an animated fantasy set in a quasi-historical time period, it’s adherence to realism is very tenuous. Overall, I feel the debate over Merida from Pixar’s Brave highlighted once again how very few mainstream children’s films star females as a heroic lead, and what kind of message this situation sends not only to young girls, but young boys as well. The biggest contradiction, though, is that after the critical and commercial success of Brave, the Disney Company followed the pattern of “feminizing” the character of Merida for use in the Disney Princess product line (Fig. 1).
Fig 1 Disney Princess Merida Redesign (Morrisey)
Many people already have issues with the generic sparkly format that the characters in the Disney Princess brand has, which appear in things ranging from computer apps to outfits, toys, and other products. Taking a female character that was already presented as the opposite of the standard Disney fairy tale princess fare and then making her more girly struck a lot of nerves, to the point that a petition took place to keep the remade Merida off of merchandise sold under the Disney Princess brand (A Mighty Girl). The public outcry was enough for Disney to pull the redesign from its Disney Princess website, but the image was still in use on the range of Disney Princess products developed for sale (Sperling). Exclusion, inferiority, and objectification were recurring themes in the textual readings for this course, so a study of a movie that attempted a different perspective on femininity that then changed its heroic character for commercial sale is appropriate for the larger issues of entrenched sexism in Western culture.
First, some history on Pixar movie studios and the Disney Princess brand. Pixar as a movie studio has been associated with Disney since the agreement to make and distribute a computer-animated movie in 1991, which would then become the 1995 hit film Toy Story (Nevius). The studio became wholly a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company in 2006, and therefore has to adhere to the same policies in its creative process and marketing as other animated Disney films. The Disney Princess brand was conceived in the late 1990s and launched in the early 2000s (Orenstein). The brand currently includes the characters Snow White from her film, Cinderella from her movie, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Jasmine from Aladdin, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, Rapunzel from Tangled, and also Pocahontas and Mulan from their films. The latter two characters aren’t as frequently featured on Disney Princess products as the rest of the others, but Disney’s issues with race are another essay entirely (Johnson). One primary issue people have with these redesigns is that they aren’t always in keeping with the message from the films. Mulan, for example, is like Merida in that her interests are in physical activities normally popular with men, and she is not overly concerned with maintaining an image of the popularized ideal of femininity such as wearing makeup or pretty dresses. One could even argue that wearing the dress and makeup for her matchmaker appointment made her miserable, while the garb of a warrior was liberating (Orenstein). With these redesigned Disney Princess characters, the ultimate message is that these characters have found happiness in a restrictive definition of femininity, and so the nonstop Disney marketing of this brand that young children are subjected to on a daily basis begins to act as a real-world sequel to the films themselves (Bartyzel). According to the Disney Consumer Products division that handles the Disney Princess brand, their intention behind these products is clear:
Disney Princess stories are timeless and classic and appeal to girls and women of all ages. As women grow up with the Disney Princess characters, they are inspired by their stories, personalities and inner qualities and pass along their love for these heroines to their own daughters.
 Individual princesses have been part of Disney since Snow White first graced the screen in 1937. In 2000, Disney Consumer Products brought all of Disney's beloved heroines – Ariel, Belle, Cinderella, Jasmine, Mulan, Pocahontas, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White – together in a collection of fantasy-based girls' entertainment and products called the Disney Princess brand. (Liz Virji)
 Each of the characters are changed from their original film depiction to a version that has more feminized model proportions. Physically they all have tinier waists, more makeup, neatly styled hair, and sparkly outfits, while also sporting a more coy, and perhaps sexy personality to go along with their new fashions (Appendix A). While there are positive traits in the Disney Princess as characters when in their own movies, there is plenty of criticism about their roles in the story and their symbolism. In terms of female representation, the earliest films, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, are very classic examples of the idea of a damsel in distress princess. The lady in question takes on a passive role, waiting for the prince or worthy man to save her, or else perform the tasks necessary to prove worthy of her hand in marriage. Cinderella isn't exactly the same, but there is still that moment near the end of the film where the female lead needs others, usually male, to rescue her. This pattern didn't change until the 1990s with the release of films like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, and Mulan (Barytzel). All these women in the later releases were more aggressive in personality and action in their respective stories, but still displayed a grace and standard of beauty common in many Disney female characters. Therefore when Brave was released, it was refreshing to see a fairy tale princess who differed from the Disney pattern seen thus far. Merida looks and acts like a teenage girl. She’s rebellious, has a short temper, and, rarest of all, is an accomplished athlete. Her physical appearance reflects this personality, with a simple dress, childlike physique, and wild curly hair that she rarely tries to tame. Much of the initial conflict in the film is due to Merida’s mother wanting her to be more feminine.
            The general plot of Brave follows Merida and her mother, Queen Elinor, as the audience is shown how their relationship deteriorated once Merida grew into her teenage years. Some of the opening scenes show how Merida loves horse riding, archery, and generally enjoying the outdoors. Later on she is even personally cleaning her horse’s stall! In the mind of her mother, though, Merida should focus on the duties, expectations, and responsibilities of being a princess, as well as being more ladylike: study poetry, geography, music, and history, while displaying manners, cleanliness, and modesty. Queen Elinor fulfills a classic role for queens in literature: she is the calm voice among wild warrior men, the diplomat, and the keeper of her people’s myths and history. Merida’s father is much more laidback and willing to encourage his daughter’s preferred hobbies, as he is both visually and actively a warrior king. It is interesting to see a medieval period piece where both male and female rulers are shown to be true equals. Both king and queen in this world are expected to rule together and take on the political responsibilities of running the kingdom, so even though Merida is female, she is still next in line for the throne as the eldest child.
Back to the plot: when the time comes for suitors from the other three clans to be presented for Merida’s marriage, the two women butt heads. Merida still treasures her independence and it hasn’t even occurred to her to consider romance, much less a marriage. The queen is focused on the tradition of a marriage to bind the four clans through kinship and political alliance, and is bewildered that her daughter will ignore everything she has been educating and preparing her for all this time. There is even a myth told in the film that a former kingdom fell into ruin when the king’s sons broke the bonds of kinship, underlying the overall message of this film that family is important. To put off the marriage, Merida sets up an archery challenge and competes for her own hand, beating the three suitors astoundingly. Her mother is furious, and afraid war will break out between the four clans. In the fight that ensues between the two women, the queen’s tapestry she has been working on since Merida was young is torn by Merida’s sword, and the queen then throws Merida’s bow into the fire. Devastated, Merida rides off in tears, and comes upon a witch way out in the wilderness. Buying a spell, Merida returns home, only to have the result turn the queen into a bear. Merida and the queen must then work together to break the spell. There is an added threat that the queen will lose her mind and become a real bear within two days’ time. What follows are some beautiful montage scenes of the mother and daughter working together to survive in the wild. Being much more of a civilized lady, the queen is at a disadvantage to care for herself while still under her human personality without Merida’s help. At one point they even find the ancient kingdom from Queen Elinor's story, and awaken a demon bear that nearly kills Merida. They run back to the kingdom in a narrow escape, and are faced with the task of figuring out how to break the curse on the queen.
At this point in the movie there are two main sources of conflict besides the threat of the queen becoming a wild animal: The queen is in danger of being mistaken for a real bear and killed by the king, and the visiting clans will go to war if a suitor for Merida is not chosen. It is in working together that the two women resolve both these conflicts. In order to reach a resolution Merida has to negotiate with the clans in an echo of an earlier scene where her mother wandered into the chaos of males fighting to calmly put an end to the fight. It is decided in a very well-done scene where the princess acts as her mother's voice that Merida will choose a husband when she is ready, thus buying more time for the other main conflict. For the climax, there is an intense battle with the humans chasing after the queen, still believing her to be a dangerous bear. Merida stands up to her father, the favorite parent, and defends her mother from the humans. Then the demon bear shows up. The queen defends her daughter and the other humans from the demon bear, finally killing it. Both women then reconcile, and the queen is restored.
One of my biggest criticisms in recent years when it comes to Pixar and its films is their seeming inability to break away from the two males "let's be buddies" plot line, which originated with Toy Story. Even with fourteen films released at the time of this writing, the company seems to have difficulty portraying a female character as anything other than a motherly nurturer or as sexual enticement to the male characters, at least until Brave. Disney isn’t much better. Females in all their movies tend to follow a pattern of being damsels in distress, mothers, or seductive femme fatales, with very little deviation in 70 years of theatrical film releases. As for princess culture as promoted by the Disney Princess brand there are many scholars and internet websites worried about the damage such imagery can do to young girls. While sociological studies and other scholarship does not conclusively prove that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations, there is statistical evidence that young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs — avoiding conflict and being perpetually nice and pretty — are more likely to be depressed and less likely to use contraception (Orenstein). There are also surveys showing an overall decline in girls’ participation in sports and other vigorous activity between middle and high school, the reasoning being that athletics is unfeminine (Orenstein). While there is nothing inherently wrong with makeup or pretty dresses, the example that the Disney Princess brand sets is that there is only one way to be female. Merida was created to be opposed to that mindset, and to redesign her character to match the stylistic choices of the Disney Princess line was for many, a betrayal. Merida’s creator, Brenda Chapman, writes along these lines in her personal blog, describing how Merida was created for her daughter, to be an individual, and an alternative choice of how to be female. As she says in a post in support of the A Mighty Girl petition, “The message Disney sends to the public in changing Merida is that she is not good enough the way she is. In doing that, they are making the same statement to all the young girls out there” (
With more public support in favor of creating positive change, there may still be a chance that corporations like The Walt Disney Company will take a chance and allow for more diverse choices in what it means to be feminine. The Disney Princess brand is only one aspect of the overall problem that girls face while growing up in Western culture. The dissonance between what girls are told they can be and what they are shown they should be is still quite wide. Merida is not the first female character to be glamorized for commercial purposes, and she certainly won’t be the last. However, with images like the pretty princess holding a bow and arrow in the Disney Princess online shop, I think society is making progress (Fig. 2).

Figure 2 Disney Princess Store Banner

Works Cited

Web. 19 January, 2014.
Brave. Dir. Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman. Disney Pixar Animation Studios, 2012. Blu-Ray + DVD. 24 January, 2014.
Bartyzel, Monika. “Girls on Film: The real problem with the Disney Princess brand.The Week. 17 May, 2013. Web. 22 January, 2014.
C. W. Nevius. SFGate. “Pixar tells story behind 'Toy Story'.” August 23, 2005. Web. 22 January, 2014.
Chapman, Brenda. “Staying True to Merida: Why This Fight Matters.Brenda Chapman (blog). May 24, 2013. Web.
Colbert, Stephen. The Colbert Report. “Pixar’s Gay Agenda.” 26 June, 2012.  Web. 20 January, 2014.
Johnson, Matthew. “The Little Princess Syndrome: When Our Daughters Act Out Fairytales.” Natural Life Magazine. Web. 22 January, 2014.
Morrissey, Tracie Egan. Jezebel.Disney PullsSexy Merida Makeover After Public Backlash.” 15 May, 2013. Web. 24 January, 2014.
Orenstein, Peggy. “What’s Wrong With Cinderella?New York Times. 24 December, 2006. Web. 22 January, 2014.
Virji, Liz. Disney Consumer Products. Web. 21 January, 2014.
Sperling, Nicole. “Disney's sexier, skinnier Merida to stay, despite protests.” Los Angeles Times. 15 May, 2013. Web. 17 January, 2014.
Stein, Atara. “Xena: Warrior Princess, The Lesbian Gaze, AndThe Construction Of A Feminist Heroine.” Whoosh: IAXS project #007. 1998.  Web. 19 January, 2014.

Appendix A

Greb, Andrea.  “DisneyPrincess Makeovers – When Being The Fairest Of Them All Isn't Enough.” 13 May, 2013. Web. 24 January, 2014.