Last week, the feminist blogosphere was alight with celebration at the apparent triumph of public activism against sexist marketing to young girls. In anticipation of her ascension into the pantheon of Disney Princesses, Merida, the star of Disney's animated film Brave, had been given a makeover by Disney Consumer Products, a makeover that replaced her bow and arrows with a sash, transformed her wildly springy hair into touch-me flowing locks, and endowed her with hips and a bust worthy of Barbie. Many Merida fans, who had embraced the unconventional princess as the first feminist Disney heroine, were outraged by Disney's marketing changes. A petition started on Change.org by "A Mighty Girl," a female empowerment website, asked others to join it in objecting to the makeover, arguing that because Merida "speaks to girls' capacity to be change agents in the world rather than just trophies to be admired," such a sexualized makeover was a "disservice to the millions of children for whom Merida is an empowering role model." Soon after, the glammed-up Merida disappear from Disney's web site, which led some news outlets and bloggers to praise Disney for acknowledging its misstep and listening to consumer opinion.
For its part, Disney claims that it had never intended the sexed-up version of Merida to replace the original; as reported on the pro-Disney web site Inside the Magic on May 15, Disney claims that this 2-D version had been created only on a "limited line of products" as a one-time "stylized version." Though the new-look Merida is gone from Disney's web site, she still graces Target's, as well as merchandise sold at Target stores (wouldn't you like to see the marketing information that drove that decision?).
I remember watching Brave with my early adolescent daughter and both appreciating how different Merida was from many of her passive princess forbearers and feeling uncomfortable with the widespread praise of Merida as a feminist role model. In the face of this most recent brouhaha, I decided to re-watch the film, looking more closely at its feminist (and anti-feminist?) themes and messages.
On the plus side:
• Rather than waiting passively for her prince to come, as did many of the most popular Disney princesses before her, Merida actively resists the finding-a-prince = happily-ever-after trajectory of the majority of Disney films aimed at girls.
• Merida, a la Atalanta in Betty Miles' retelling of the myth for the 1970s feminist Free to Be You and Me record and television show, responds to becoming the prize for which men compete by entering the competition herself, and winning it.
• The witch of the piece is far from the typical sexy-terrifying temptress common to most Disney films. But she's not a sweet goody-two-shoes, either. Instead, we're given a portrait of a witch of many dimensions—equal parts mysterious and silly, canny and conniving.
• Merida doesn't end up married, or even in a romance, by the end of the film. When Merida's mother tells her the story of the other kingdom, the story of a prince who asked a witch for the strength of ten men in order to wrest the crown away from his three brothers, I thought for sure we were in for a Beauty and the Beast retelling. After the marauding bear Mor'du had been defeated, I was convinced we'd find ourselves with a chastened, but suitably appealing prince with whom Merida could fall in love. Instead, Mor'du's clearly older human spirit thanks mother and daughter for freeing his spirit from its animal entrapment, and wafts away.
• Merida's story focuses on a mother/daughter relationship, a rare theme in any film for young children, but especially in one created by Disney. The main quest of the film is not to win a princess or to defeat a villain, but to repair an estranged mother/daughter bond.
On the not so encouraging side:
• Would you want to marry any of Merida's suitors? Resisting marriage seems the only possible choice when you're presented with an inarticulate clod, a self-admiring whiner, and an awkward wimp, doesn't it?
• Why doesn't Merida want to marry? "I don't want my life to be over. I want my freedom," she cries, without ever saying why marriage would bring her life to an end, or restrict the little freedom she currently experiences. In fact, you might think Merida would look forward to marriage, if only to get away from the oppressive gender-role harping of her mother. None of the men in the film seem to care whether Merida rides a horse and carries a bow or not...
• And why is Mom, rather than patriarchy, the oppressive force insisting that Merida must conform to strict gender roles? "A princess doesn't...", "A princess never...", "A princess must...", we hear over and over from the queen, but are given no explanation for why she's so insistent on embracing a restrictive vision of femininity, particularly when there seems no pressure from anyone else for her to maintain it. Perhaps Disney is suggesting that for young viewers, a parent's rules appear to be completely arbitrary. And it is certainly true that women contribute to socializing younger girls into gender conformity. But with the only other adult female in the film used solely as comic relief, the impression viewers are left with is that gender policing only occurs because adult women enforce it, for no logical reason.
• The film constructs feminism in a very second-wave way. Merida's feminism consists primarily in her rejection of stereotypically feminine activities, and embrace of masculine ones. Merida doesn't like to play music, or sew; she likes to shoot her bow, she likes to ride out on her horse and explore, she likes to climb mountains: "I will fly, chase the wind, and touch the sky" the background music declares during her solitary nature jaunt at the beginning of the film.
• Once she's inadvertently turned her mother into a bear, Merida can't get mom out of the castle herself; she needs the help of her annoying little brothers to do so.
• The film's messages about self-determination are muddy, to say the least. Both Merida and the Prince/Mordu actively work to change their fates. But because their reasons for doing so are selfish, the film suggests, their actions are wrong: "I know how one selfish act can turn the fate of a kingdom," and "I've been selfish," Merida proclaims during the first reconciliation scene between mother and daughter. "Mend the bond / torn by pride," the witch declares. Was Merida's resistance to marriage selfish? An act of unacceptable pride? If she had found a different way to object, would her attempt to change her fate have been acceptable? "Our fate lives within us. You only have to be brave enough to see it," Merida's voice-over says at the film's conclusion, a suitably uplifting but rather confusing statement; in what way has Merida "seen" her fate?
• Is the film's message, then, less about self-determination, and more about accepting personal responsibility? "It's not my fault," Merida continually cries after her mother is transformed into a bear. Even taking up the feminine task of "mending the bond" by sewing back together the family portrait tapestry Merida had ripped is not enough to undo the transformation. Only after she acknowledges responsibility for her act—"I'm sorry. This is all my fault. I did this to you. To us."—does the spell begin to unravel. But it does not disappear until Merida recants her earlier mother-bashing does it completely lose its hold: "You've always been there for me. You've never given up on me. I just want you back." Mother-bashing, rather than denying personal responsibility, is the ultimate sin, a rather invidious message for a film that actively sets its viewers up to regard the mother up as the villain of the piece.
Watching the film this time through, I was struck by this image, of Mor'du about to ravage (ravish?) Merida. If you dig past the usual Disney bromides and think about what is happening on a symbolic level, this picture gives you a much clearer sense of why a girl might not want to get married. Early in the film, the queen acknowledges, "even I had reservations when I faced betrothal," an admission that's a bit hard to understand, given the far from fearful (in fact, quite bumbling) vision of masculinity the film has presented to that point. and continues to present in its depiction of the other clan leaders, their sons, and Merida's own brothers. But in Mor'du, we have a darker, more violent vision of masculinity, a selfish, sexual masculinity that threatens not only to take away a woman's freedom, but her very life. That the queen rescues her daughter not once, but twice from such masculinity, and Merida in turn rescues her mother when her father turns that portion of his masculinity on his queen, suggests a quite feminist underlying subtext: that only by protecting one another, and working together, can women keep violent, aggressive masculinity from destroying their lives.
Girl power indeed.
Merida before and after: change.org
Brave photographs: Disney.com
Merida comic: Dork Tower
Merida before and after: change.org
Brave photographs: Disney.com
Merida comic: Dork Tower
Next time on RNFF:
Romance and childhood sexual abuse