Disney princesses are known for a few things. They’re really nice. They have beautiful dresses, and they have a prince counterpart who usually stages some sort of gallant rescue when the main protagonist finds herself a damsel in distress, needing to be saved. Snow White is reprieved from death by poison. Ariel attains her life goal of being human through a prince’s kiss. Cinderella is swept up from poverty and abuse to the life of her dreams by a charming fellow. These pretty princesses, while they make wonderful movies, have become an enterprise of their own which little girls look up to as role models, and can even go visit in person at Disney World. (Interestingly enough, the princes staging the rescue are not typically seen as gallant behavioral models for little boys, and don’t even exist in person at the theme park to visit). Yet, when we really think about it, is this the set of ideals we want our daughters to try to live up to? Look pretty enough, be nice enough, and a handsome man will come give you all of your heart’s desires?
Disney has tried to break the mold a few times with Mulan (only semi-successfully, since she’s not normally included in their princesses line) and more recently Brave’s heroine, Merida. Merida doesn’t care about her hair, is into archery, shuns pretty dresses, and rides off into the sunset on her own horse sans Prince Charming. It was a major step forward in the creation of a strong female role model (perhaps made possible by the overwhelming popularity of The Hunger Games which debuted a few months before?) in cartoon form. But then, Disney had to go and ruin all of that forward progress by sexing up Merida before creating her princess doll. In other words, they let the movie happen, then revamped her image to more closely fit their idea of what a princess- or if we’re taking this role model thing a little farther, a woman–should be. They smoothed her hair into long, glowing locks, narrowed her waist, nixed the bow and arrow, and put her in a more revealing gown. And while I do love the Disney princesses and their accompanying movies, I find it a little offensive that they give such a narrow view into the possible roles for girls to grow into. As a dress-wearing, pink tulle-loving girl, I don’t think there is anything wrong with promoting girly things. A lot of women are into looking their best, and wearing pretty things. But why not allow for other options if fashion and beauty aren’t your cup of tea? And can we stop making the princesses’ entire identities revolve around locking down their prince? The young women of the world who love being athletic, or don’t have time to worry about fixing their hair because they’re too busy out saving the world themselves, not waiting for a prince to do it, should have a character they can identify with.
Disney retracted the new image in the United States after a huge backlash, but has not released a statement on the matter. Merida’s creator spoke with The Daily Beast about what the Disney-ification of Merida meant to her. It seems like this time around, it’s one step forward, two steps back.