Merida and the Problem with the Disney Princess Franchise

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding Brave‘s Merida recently over the redesign Disney did for her character. In the movie, Merida looked like a young girl with wild red hair, normal body proportions, and a simple dress suited more to riding through the woods and shooting arrows. In Merida’s redesign for the Disney Princess line, she looks like an adult with wavy, perfectly tamed red hair, a stick-skinny body, and a fancy sparkly princess dress. Many people protested the change, claiming, understandably, that the redesign completely undid any of the positive feminist messages from the Brave movie. Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, had this to say about the redesign:

Because, in the end, it wasn’t about being brave after all. It was about being pretty. (source)

originalRecent protest of the redesign forced Disney’s hand and the “new” Merida was removed from Disney’s website, but the battle isn’t won—not by a long shot. In fact, I’d say we already lost the war a long time ago.

I’m sure that’s not the most uplifting thing to say ever, but it certainly seems that way. For example, despite the Merida redesign being taken down from the website, it’s still being used for their merchandising. Target recently introduce a new Merida doll that looks so little like Merida if I hadn’t been told it was her I literally never would have guessed. And though everyone is freaking out about Disney ruining Merida—and, yes, Merida is probably the most feminist Disney princess, followed closely by Mulan—Merida is hardly the biggest problem.

Every other princess has also been redesigned once they joined the Disney Princess line.

all-disney-princessesOthers more qualified than me have talked about how the princesses look, so instead of rehashing anything let’s just look at what they have to say:

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. (Marinda Valenti)


I’m especially creeped out by Belle who appears to have had major surgery. Or, wait, maybe I’m more creeped out by the way they’ve changed Aurora (who used to be called Briar Rose).Or, wait, what about what about the apparent lobotomy that Rapunzel has had? OrAnd [sic] Cinderella looking like Taylor Swift? And Pocahontas?  Tiana looks like she’s not getting enough to eat at that restaurant of hers. And Mulan, poor, poor Mulan. (Peggy Orenstein)

It’s all off the shoulder dresses, sparkles, make up, and stick-thin bodies, with few to no princesses of color. Even the few that are there are slowly pushed to the back of the lineup. We don’t want to distract from the other princesses, right? Ugh!

The real problem comes from the whole Disney Princess line and how it markets to young girls. The Disney Princess line is a 4 billion dollar franchise. The sad fact is that Disney makes money off selling pretty dresses and sparkly tiaras. I’m not saying that they don’t care about the effect their products have on young girls (they might). But I’m also not saying that Disney should be excused for continuing to market and sell these sexist, body-shaming, and white-washing stereotypes just because it makes money for their business. But we may never beat Disney. First, you can’t avoid Disney. Even if you never liked or watched any of the Disney cartoons, chances are that you’ve seen something on ABC before, or or that you’ve seen a Marvel movie, the Studio Ghibli movies, anything at all from the Star Wars franchise, and much more. Chances are, even if you actively try to avoid all things Disney, you have probably given them money either directly or indirectly at some point. The most we can do is support Disney when they do something right (like with the Brave movie) and call them out and not support them when they do something bad (like the Merida redesign).

But not supporting Disney is difficult, not just because they’re everywhere, but well… I’m not a parent, but I can imagine that if I have a daughter, someday will we inevitably find ourselves at the Disney Store. And maybe she’ll be clutching onto some terribly sexist looking Cinderella doll that I would never have picked out for her myself. But I can imagine that she’ll look up at me with big, tear-filled doe eyes and say, “Please can I have it, mommy? I want to be a princess like Cinderella.” And I’ll cave and buy it for her, because how can I not? The most I can do is try to minimize the damage. That is depressingly why this fight with Disney is so hard to win, because no matter how much you may hate them, your kids will end up loving all things Disney, and then it’s pretty much game over. The best we can do is just to continue to push for Disney to be better, but it’s going to be a long and difficult battle.

7 thoughts on “Merida and the Problem with the Disney Princess Franchise

  1. First of all, while I personally don’t have a problem with Merida’s new dress itself and while I wouldn’t mind wearing it, I know that Merida definitely would. The worst thing about this is that it deviates from the character we all knew from the movie. That was an hour and a half of this red-headed lass fighting to become her own person and refusing to conform to what the norm expects of a princess (and not hiding her enormous appetite), and where is she now? Here, with all the other sparkly, waifish, over-girly Disney chicks! I mean, she was supposed to have a bow, and I don’t see it anywhere in this redesign. That’s a huge removal of a large part of Merida’s character. What if kids think this is the only way they’ll be accepted into society, by conforming to a sexist standard?
    Secondly, poor poor Mulan.

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