Remember when I took my girls to see Brave about a year ago, and pointed out in my review that the marketing tie ins (Will-o-the-wisp earrings, betrothal dresses, high heel dress up shoes) felt like they were from a different, way less awesome, movie? I wrote:
I think Disney and Mattel are underestimating the audience for this film. I think they could have marketed the hell out of Merida adventure ballet flats and bow and arrow sets, and stocking the shelves with will o the wisp earrings and sparkly hair gems to decorate Merida’s hair is shortsighted. Merida wears one dress for 99% of the movie: it’s the dress she climbs, rides, jumps, shoots, fishes, explores in. Why isn’t the doll in the box wearing that dress?
If you’ve been following any feminist parenting blogs, or you watch The Daily Show, you know exactly where I’m going with this: Extreme Makeover, Princess edition.
A lot of excellent activism has been happening around the Merida makeover. A Mighty Girl started a change.org petition that has more than 200,000 signatures. Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies has focused a direct action campaign on Target, which is selling the limited release new Merida dolls.
But I think the issue runs deeper than Merida. For me, this simply highlights what I think has always been the primary weakness of the Disney Princess merchandise: the emphasis on marketing a princess ideal that homogenizes the characters’ personalities and appearances so that they become an indistinguishable blur of tiny waisted flowing haired Stepford wives. The marketing within the Disney Princess line focuses on presenting Merida within the confines of traditional femininity, even when that breaks from the narrative and character of the film. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: it’s exactly what they did to Mulan. And in fact, all of the princesses were “updated” at the same time as Merida. Hello Giggles has side by side images of each princess, original and updated, and the differences are striking. Here are the new princesses posed together, before Disney pulled the new Merida images from their website:
The Disney princess line generates millions, maybe billions, of dollars in profits annually for Disney. The products are numerous—not just the original movies, but the direct to DVD sequels, books, dolls, dress up costumes, clothing, bikes, etc—and the marketing focuses not on the individual stories of each princess, which differ in significant ways, but on the lowest common denominator of what it might mean to be a princess.
There are 11 Disney princesses in all. In order of release, they are Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan, Pocahantas, Tiana, Rapunzel and Merida. (Merida is from Brave, which is technically a Pixar film, but Disney owns Pixar and had an official coronation for Merida a couple weeks ago, which is when this make over hoopla began .)
It’s important to realize, if you haven’t been in the princess aisle of the toy store lately, that Disney heavily promotes the re-release of classic films like Snow White and Cinderella. So these older stories don’t disappear as new princesses are added: they are intentionally remarketed as part of an ongoing princess narrative.
And what does it mean to be a princess in these stories?
In the older stories, it mostly means that you wait around for a prince. In the case of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, you don’t even have to be awake while you wait. And even if you’re awake, you can be silent: Ariel trades her voice for her human legs, and Cinderella doesn’t speak at the ball. Because eventually, your prince is going to be swept away by your beauty and purity and rescue you –from housework, or sleep, or your father, or tiny men—and there will be a lot of dancing and a wedding. The prince, incidentally, might be an animal, or a jerk, or a jerky animal. But don’t let that stop you from loving him!
The more recent princesses do have more spunk and personality than Snow White and Cinderella: Belle, Jasmine, and Ariel (despite her silence) all have moments of strength and courage and wit and humor. Mulan is a warrior (although as part of the princess line she’s dressed in the traditionally feminine clothing she hates in the movie). Disney explicitly marketed Tiana as a new kind of princess: one with her own dreams and plans for success.
I think there are some real strengths to Tiana as a character: she has a mother and a father (and 2 parent families are atypical for Disney) who encourage her to pursue her dream of owning a restaurant. She has drive, ambition, focus, and talent, as a human and as a frog, and just as importantly, the prince is attracted by those qualities. He’s not swept away by her beauty, but by her commitment to making her dreams a reality.
The messaging is similar in Tangled: Rapunzel’s desires are a force in the story. What she lacks, in comparison to Tiana, is the guts to pursue them on her own. But in both of those films, I think the messaging about relationships represents a significant shift from the older films: the right partner for you is someone who supports your dreams and goals and wants to help you make them come true. Contrast that to the messaging of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, for example: the right partner for you is a man who is magically attracted to you when you appear to be dead.
But then there was Merida: she rides fast, climbs tall mountains, shoots a bow and arrow with tremendous skill and accuracy, and is endearingly imperfect. She’s strong, brave, independent, willing to challenge rules and traditions.
When I reviewed Brave, two of things I loved about the movie were that Merida is focused on what her body can do, not how she looks, and that Pixar avoided the two easiest contemporary princess story lines (he’s a jerk/animal/jerky animal but her love changes him and/or she realizes she can fall in love and still be feisty). Brave could have been a movie about a strong, brave, adventurous girl who realizes that the right prince will love her for all of those traits. It is not that movie. There is no love story. There is no wedding. If the message of the Princess and the Frog is, you can be awesome AND find your prince, the message of Brave is, you can be awesome. Period.
Even before the makeover, there was evidence that Disney is beginning to recognize the need to redefine princess for a generation of girls who just aren’t likely to identify with the weak narratives of the early princesses. Check out this Disney video about how every girl can be a princess by standing up for herself, for example. The silence and sexism that defines those early films is only marginally socially acceptable. It’s not who the girls I know understand themselves to be. So if you’re Disney, how do you keep selling Snow White? Do you make over Merida so that she looks more like Cinderella and hope kids and parents don’t notice the difference?
But now that hundreds of thousands of parents, including Jon Stewart, have noticed the difference, it seems that perhaps feminist parenting advocates have a rare moment in the spotlight. I hope we can use it to draw attention to more than Merida, because she’s not the only casualty here. All the princesses were updated; all look older, and sexier, than their original images; they also look more similar to one another. At this point, the Mulan princess merchandise bears no resemblance to the powerful warrior from the film. Beyond maintaining the integrity of Merida’s character, I would love to see Disney recognize that children and families value these characters, especially the most recent princesses, because of the elements that make the characters and narratives unique. Homogenizing the images and merchandise does a disservice to many of the more recent princesses who frankly have more powerful and interesting stories than the classics. There are real differences between Tiana and Cinderella: rethinking the Princess branding might mean playing up the individual story lines, rather than the lowest common denominators of heteronormative femininity. Yes, let’s keep Merida Brave: but let’s also open up the conversation to ask bigger questions about the princess merchandise and images.