The Disney Princesses lines of merchandising and products have, despite their relatively innocent origins, been a subject of controversy over the years.
Mums have complained about the supposed image the characters portray: Highly beautiful, with expensive dresses and (especially in the earlier generations) a desire for a handsome man to come in and rescue them from whatever evils or drudgery haunts them. This viewpoint is debateable and in recent years, Disney has scrambled to create more active and less ‘sensualised’ Princesses.
This lead to Merida, the lead character from Brave; a sixteen year old Scottish princess with a mound of ginger curls on her head, a bow in her hand, and not a single love interest on her heels. One of a rash of archer characters in recent film history (Legolas, Robin Hood, Katniss and Hawkeye spring to mind), Merida was a success with mothers, and so, Disney announced that they would add Merida to their Disney Princess range. This was received well… until they revealed what she would look like.
Essentially, they’ve aged her slightly to be around eighteen to twenty years old, allowing them to increase her bust size and hip width slightly. They’ve taken away her bow and arrows (a particularly odd move, considering the popularity of the motif), and made her hair less curly: Similar to the difference between Hermione Granger in the books and Emma Watson’s portrayal of the character. They’ve also supposedly made her eyes more seductive and, potentially the worst ‘crime’, dress her in an off the shoulder, glitzy gown: Very similar to the one she hates in the movie.
The reaction of parents – well, mothers – has been less than stellar. A petition of 108,000 signatures has been accumulated in order to persuade Disney to change their minds. Most importantly, one of the signatures comes from Disney co-director, Brenda Chapman, who has accused Disney of having “a total disregard [the character] in the name of their narrow minded view of what will make money.” Having based the character of Merida on her own thirteen year old daughter (aged slightly to sixteen), it may have been an unwelcome surprise to see her character turned into what others have referred to as “vapid,” "arm candy," "unrealistic" and "vacant looking."
Looking at images comparing the two portrayals of the character, personally I find it difficult to argue that there has been some ‘sexing up’ between the original and The Disney Princess branded version. Her eyes look different simply due to the different styles of drawing, not due to creative differences as far as I can see, and though I do think the characters bust has been increased this could be due to the slight age increase given to the character. I also don’t really see much of a difference between the hairstyles of the two. I hate to use gender as an excuse, but maybe this is a boy/girl thing.
However, I can definitely agree that the character has been altered and I can’t quite understand why. Merida was young, certainly, but no younger than others in the line and they did not require aging. Furthermore, as stated earlier, archery is a really popular symbol at the moment: Why bother taking away the bow and arrows? And if the dress was an important plot point in the characters story arc because she hated it, why subvert that?
To me, it seems that Disney did not think this decision through. Traditionally, yes, the Princess line has always been an excuse for the company’s heroines to wear glitzier dresses than are actually seen in the films. But with a character like this, the idea simply doesn’t work. Where they go from here will be interesting: They may be able to change the design, though that would take effort and money the company may not be willing to stump up. Or, they may stick to their guns. Disney have issued a statement, though it was vague, and barely referenced the decision making process at all.
Brave marked an interesting chapter in Disney history, subverting a lot of the ideas behind the supposed Disney Princess. It will take more than one film, however, to change the merchandising and mindset of a company mired in 50 years or so of tradition.