Admired for her tomboyish spunk and dudeless story arc, Merida stands out from princesses before her in ways that can be considered revolutionary for women in animated film. For this reason, many—including the film’s writer and co-director, Brenda Chapman—feel that Merida’s redesign is a wildly out-of-character step backward from the progress that her on-screen persona seemed to promise.
After Disney’s website debuted Merida 2.0, a petition with Change.org quickly formed in opposition to her new image appearing on Disney merchandise. Since then, Disney has pulled the image of new Merida from its website and replaced her with the original Pixar design. This quiet response from Disney was reported by some (including us) as a small victory for protesting fans, but after speaking with Carolyn Danckaert, who launched the Change.org campaign, we learned that the fight is far from over.
Danckaert is the co-founder of an online resource center for girl empowerment called A Mighty Girl (AMG). The expansive website features “the world’s largest collection of books, toys, movies, music and clothing for parents, teachers and others dedicated to raising smart, confident and courageous girls.” When Brave premiered last year, Danckaert says, A Mighty Girl was excited to include Merida in their list of smart and independent young trailblazers. She was a perfect fit for one of their many subcategories, The Ultimate Guide to the Independent Princess, which features an extensive collection of alternatives to the damsel-in-distress trope.
When AMG discovered what Disney had in store for its beloved independent princess, AMG posted it to Facebook. Within hours, the post received over 800 comments, an overwhelming majority of which were negative. AMG thus decided to challenge Disney’s less-than-empowering makeover of princess Merida with an online petition.
The petition quickly gained more than 200,000 signatures. Danckaert suggests that this is because the core audience for both Disney and AMG are basically the same: young children and mothers of young children, particularly daughters. When Brave came out, Danckaert says, both mothers and daughters embraced Merida as an impressive new role model that girls could actually relate to. So when Disney transformed her into sexy Merida, she was pushed back into an unnecessarily glamorized, generic mold that has usurped other Disney princesses’ on-screen independence. A similar change happened for Mulan, who resists hyper-femininity in her movie but wears the very outfit that causes her distress for the sake of Disney’s glammed-up merchandise.
Indeed, AMG’s campaign was never just about the image on the Disney website but instead was concerned with sexy Merida’s induction into the Disney princess collection—and thus into new Brave products. Though Disney took down her new image on its website, it continues to use sexy new Merida in its merchandising.
In the AMG blog, Danckaert explains that Disney’s new Merida—which many children don’t even recognize as their bow-slinging heroine—is a disservice to the young viewers who found a role model in a different kind of princess. Danckaert writes,
[B]y making [Merida] skinnier, sexier and more mature in appearance, [Disney is] sending a message to girls that the original, realistic, teenage-appearing version of Merida is inferior; that for girls and women to have value—to be recognized as true princesses—they must conform to a narrow definition of beauty.
Merida’s redesign betrays the integrity of her unique character, and AMG wants Brave merchandise to reflect the on-screen Merida that parents and children fell in love with. It’s that merchandise image of Merida that children will play and imagine with, and they deserve the real character, not an unconvincing imitation. As Brenda Chapman insisted in her AMG interview, “Make the toys who the character is.”
AMG’s petition is pushing things in the right direction. As of last Saturday, Target pulled its Disney princess collection webpage, which featured Merida’s redesign, from its online store. But this isn’t enough—AMG wants a statement from Disney confirming the discontinuation of sexy Merida from its merchandise line. Until then, the fight isn’t over.