The Problem with Merida's Princess Makeover

What Women Really Think
May 10 2013 3:31 PM

The Problem with Merida's Princess Makeover

Merida 2.0, with a slim waist, wider eyes, and tamer hair.
Merida 2.0, with a slim waist, wider eyes, and tamer hair.

Courtesy of Disney/Wikimedia Commons

Lots of female characters get to be the stars of Disney movies—it's one of the virtues of the brand. But not all of them get to be official Disney Princesses, a special designation given to a limited cast of characters who are the focus of special merchandising campaigns. On May 11, Merida, the star of last summer's Brave, will join that elite club. But apparently her accomplishments in fighting giant bears weren't enough for the occasion. To mark her induction, Merida needed a makeover.

We're not just talking a new dress that bares her shoulders and swaps out her quiver of arrows for a shiny belt, although that would have been an affront enough to her tomboy aesthetic. We're talking what appears to be rib-removal surgery.

To a certain extent, Disney's attempts to democratize what it means to be a princess are admirable. You don't actually have to be born into a royal title, or obtain one by marriage. Mulan, a Chinese woman who runs away to join the army in the movie that bears her name, wins the admiration of a general through hard work long before he learns that she's a woman and considers her a candidate for a relationship. You don't have to live a stereotypical life of leisure until your routine is punctuated by an adventure. The Princess And The Frog's Tiana is an aspiring small business owner before she gets accidentally transformed into a frog. You don't have to be white, or European, or in the case of Ariel, the star of The Little Mermaid, necessarily based on land.

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But two restrictions remain. You have to be young. You have to have a very particular body type and long, perfect hair. The edits to Merida reflect those priorities. Her famous hair, which took six Pixar employees—a mix of artists and engineers—three years to design, has been smoothed out, made less kinky, less frizzy, and less alive. Her waist has been slimmed down, emphasizing her breasts, but at the expense of Merida's solid frame, which is a real shame given the way Brave celebrated Merida's pleasure in her body's capacities.

If it's important that girls of color and girls of different economic classes be able to recognize themselves and find aspirational stories in the Disney Princess line, why shouldn't it also matter that girls with wild hair and variable body types see themselves there too?

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate’s “XX Factor” blog. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com.

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