Disney responds to Merida petition, missing the point

Recently, Disney released a new, 2D image of Merida. This prompted outrage because the character’s design was altered, for no good reason. The new Merida has been “prettified”–made more conventionally attractive in a way that undercuts the character’s strengths, to the detriment of the children who view her as a role model.

In response, A Mighty Girl released a petition to Disney that outlines the reasons why the redesign is problematic. The petition culminates with a request: to pull the new 2D Merida and restore the character to her original form.

Yesterday, Disney executives went on record regarding the petition. They’re refusing to retract the new Merida, saying she’s only temporary–and their comments show they’ve missed the point.

The L.A. Times reports on the refusal to retract the new Merida:

Disney has no intention of abandoning its sexier version of the Scottish archer.

The modified Merida was created specifically to welcome the character into the company’s princess collection. And according to a Disney representative on Wednesday, the image of Merida that sparked this maelstrom is part of a limited run of products including backpacks and pajamas. But images of the original Merida will also be available on consumer products, the Disney representative said.

But no one ever doubted that the original Merida would still be available on products; the objection is to the new Merida redesign. Full stop. The fact that it’s “part of a limited run” doesn’t make it any less problematic.

A Disney representative expanded on their stance in an exclusive interview with fan site Inside the Magic, calling the controversy “blown out of proportion.” This makes clear that Disney execs either don’t truly understand the objections, or are willfully ignoring them. According to Inside the Magic:

[Disney] had no intention of changing who Merida is. The artwork that has circulated online depicting the new 2D rendering of Merida was intended to be used only on a “limited line of products” as a “one-time stylized version.” They noted Disney uses different styles of art on characters regularly, changing them to fit their needs at the time.

And in this case, that time was the coronation. Noting that Merida wanted to “dress up” for her coronation ceremony, the new 2D artwork was created, first debuting on the official invitation that was sent out to the media.

So, Disney’s justification for making the change is that Merida herself wanted to dress up for her coronation ceremony. This seems disingenuous: Merida is a fictional character who doesn’t want anything; arguing that it was her choice is pretty insulting. Besides, at the actual coronation in the Magic Kingdom, Merida was dressed in attire more closely resembling her outfit from the film than from the new 2D art–so this really isn’t about the coronation.

And where is this “limited line of products” to be sold? At Target, according to Inside the Magic (which Amy Jussel points is hardly “limited.” Have a look at Target’s main page for the Disney Princesses:Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 12.04.24 PM

It’s all about the new Merida, and it features rather frightening products, like this doll with spindly space alien arms (h/t Elizabeth Sweet):14329579_121213163000

Ugh.

In their exclusive piece about Disney’s response, Inside the Magic concludes:

Looking forward, [Disney execs] could not say exactly how she would be depicted alongside the other Disney Princesses other than to again repeat that this “one-time stylized version” was only intended for the coronation and some products, hoping to create some calm in the communities who are up in arms over the matter.

This brings us to the crux of the matter: If Disney hopes that the girl empowerment community and our allies will be placated because 2D Merida is only temporary, they’re missing the point. People are up in arms because the changes to Merida — even if temporary in nature — completely undercut the character, selling girls short.

Let’s review the chief problems:

- They took a strong character and weakened her.

- They took a natural beauty and glamorized her.

- They took a youthful 16-year-old and made her look like she’s 22.

- They disrespected the fact that Merida is a princess who goes against the grain, eschewing the trappings of being a princess in favor of being an individual.

By squeezing a character so widely regarded as a barrier-breaking role model into a cookie cutter mold, Disney’s Consumer Products Division sent the message that in the end, looks are all that matter.

In short, if Disney’s response is, “Don’t worry, folks; this new Merida is only temporary!”, they’ve missed the point. Let’s call on Disney to address their poor decision to redesign Merida in the first place–however temporary and “limited” that change might be–and reassure us that they will treat this character with integrity in the future.

Sign the Change.org petition here. And sign the MoveOn.org petition here.

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P.S. I hope A Mighty Girl will consider updating the petition to a) include Target, which is apparently to be the main retailer of products featuring the new 2D Merida; and b) respond to Disney’s response, outlined above.

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To read my previous posts on Merida, click here.

To read my previous posts on the Disney Princess brand, click here.

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Do you like this post? Follow Rebecca Hains on facebook or twitter.

About the author: Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is an associate professor of communications at Salem State University, where she teaches advertising and media studies. Her new book, Confronting Cinderella: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, will be released by Source Books next year.

35 Comments on “Disney responds to Merida petition, missing the point

  1. Pingback: Disney faces backlash over new “sexy” Merida; pulls new image from web site as a result | Rebecca Hains

  2. My nieces are too little to have seen Brave, but I have a feeling that if I showed them Original Merida next to Sexy Merida, the response would be “that’s not the same princess”. I’m going to ask them next time I see them.

    Personally, Merida in a sparkly dress but otherwise unchanged would have been cool by me. With all the other changes, not so much.

    • Katherine, I agree. Sparkles seem relatively inconsequential; it’s the combination of all the other changes that add up to one big problem.

      I would love to know what your nieces say after you ask them! :)

  3. When things like this happen I just have to shake my head and wonder who thought up such a dumb idea and why did others go along with it?!

    • Bekah, I know right?! Apparently the product development team is all-male, and while I’m not saying “urgh men are all evol” it’s not a surprise when they have far less understanding of the issues involved than might a female team. As for the people who went along with it, well, we really don’t know who, if anyone, pointed out the potential problems – but to be fair, in this climate a lot of people are worried about their jobs and face a substantial personal risk if they “make waves.”
      That’s not to say that “I was just doing my job” is really an excuse, but people are accepting an awful lot these days in the hope of avoiding unemployment (loss of overtime, for example) and it’s only fair to recognise that they have pressures of their own to deal with.
      That’s why ultimately the people whose money Disney wants – the parents and families of kids at whom Disney’s marketing is aimed – have to just hold up a hand and say “Hold on, we’re really not happy with this.” Of course you don’t have to be a parent or a woman to lend support, and for that support to help. And parents really do have an uphill battle against billions of dollars’ worth of marketing. But while Disney may try to downplay the bad PR, it can’t ignore all the money it doesn’t get from “Sexy Merida” products.

  4. You’re right – they totally missed the point. In addition to the points you raised, it also bothers me because a) Merida is the one princess who ACTIVELY REJECTS being pretty. Not just that it is not a big focus for her (some princesses, like Belle, have thrown beauty on the back-burner) but for her it is something she actively fights against. And b) the new Merida does not have her ever-present bow and arrow, which is a sign of self-sufficiency and a reminder of her love of adventure.

    • Absolutely! Now, Disney points out that in the redesign, Merida sometimes DOES have her bow and arrow… but still.

  5. Love how you put this in point by point ‘why do toy companies keep doing this’ simplicity pointing to the fact that it’s not any ONE doll, or missing bow/arrow, canted gaze, costume, sparkles whatevs…It’s a collective shout about identity, narrowcasting, child development and adolescent health w/a cultural context that’s being overlooked in this saturated marketplace of sexualized slop. (yah, I know, tell me how you really feel, Amy) ;)

    Seriously, though, to do some ‘schoolin’ for the greater good, feel it’s gotta go beyond media blitzes/pundits/personal brand jockeying for fame game to get multiple voices raised in unison (parents, youth themselves, educators, industry, adolescent child dev pros) to start reframing with health literacy pointing to pediatricians, researchers, studies as a show and tell…

    Extra peeved when power brokers reduce/belittle w/ignorance to a “one-off” trope w/”over-reaction” dismissal (haven’t spent 7 years of media literacy edu to have convo reduced to ‘market demand’ or sparkles)

    Gotta step off a bit and shake off the stifling David/Goliath themes…THANK YOU for your helpful updates, insights, articulation + kick arse clarity; eyes wide shut is not helping kids in this culture.

    • Well said! I agree 100%, and yes, it is really insulting for Disney to be so dismissive, although I recognise it as a fairly standard tactic.
      Perhaps someone at Disney should read Rebecca’s previous post on the issue, because the problems with Sexy Merida and the reasons why it matters were explained there, repeatedly, clearly and at great length for the benefit of the oblivious and the wilfuly obtuse.

    • Thanks, Amy! I hope it’s all helpful. I’m in full agreement with you on the “one-off” “over-reaction” nonsense. It’s belittling and the precise opposite of an apology!

  6. when this came out my girls loved the movie an her especially cause she was more like a tomboy, cause that is more like there nature. this new slicked out version looks like a twin that belongs in a kingdom full of prissy primped out princess. I try 2 teach my girls that is alright 2 be little different n do things a diff way from other kids. an its okay 2 play out in the yard an get dirty or climb a tree or anything like that. one of the best lessons I was taught was 2 be independent an not expect anyone 2 do anything for you. an this movie says that 2, that its okay 2 be yourself an find your own way 2 be happy an 2 grow up strong women an not just another pretty face. no 1 needs 2 be a cut out of someone else or to mimic something just cause it is cool or etc… an that is my opinion

    • Yes! As Melissa at Pigtail Pals is always saying, there are lots of ways to be a girl. Disney has offered so little diversity in its girls (with all the emphasis on beauty and romance) that Merida was like a breath of fresh air. Her independent spirit is such an upgrade from the passivity of the Snow Whites and Cinderellas of the world.

  7. Pingback: UPDATE: The Sexy Merida Makeover: A BRAVE Six-Year-Old Isn't Buying It

  8. Pingback: Disney faces backlash over new “sexy” Merida; pulls new image from web site as a result | SouthWeb Org

    • Terrific! I’ll sign. I feel like we might really need a petition that applies to ALL the princesses. The Consumer Products Division takes way too many liberties!

    • Will definitely sign that, Bonnie! I think there are also race issues playing into the problems with Mulan. Not to mention with Pocahontas too. They both have issues regarding the exoticisation of people of non-Caucasian races, and simultaneously have been subtly “Westernized” in appearance.

  9. Aside from the general stupidity of the redesign, the wimpy arms on the doll completely ignore the fact that as an expert archer, Merida would have arm muscles that would put most men to shame.

    • Ha! True. Do you remember people pointing out that in real life, Barbie wouldn’t actually be able to stand up straight?!

      • Ps. I’ve never actually tried archery, so I don’t know for sure, but I thought that having big boobs would also be quite a hindrance. Didn’t the Amazons cut them off? Or was that just a myth?

    • A good point! You know, it’s always irked me that in girl power media (think Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc), girls who are incredibly strong never LOOK it. God forbid a strong girl have a muscular physique!

      • Yes! Although in the case of BTVS I think originally part of the impact of the character – and the originality – came from the idea that here was a young woman based not on the Big Macho Superhero, but the girl who wanders into the attic or cellar in a horror movie; the archetype who appears powerless and is normally cast as Victim No.2, who looks weak and vulnerable, but surprises the vampire/monster, and the audience, by being unexpectedly strong. And although Buffy mainly used physical force to beat her opponents, the series did deal with the notion of female strength and power being different from but certainly not inferior to male power. (I’m thinking particularly of the ending, but I won’t go into detail, just in case anyone here has yet to watch BTVS)
        Still, once the series was well-established, and everyone (including all the vampires) knew what a Slayer was, Buffy and other characters could certainly have had a more muscular physical appearance. I know that in real life, a lot of women who visit gyms avoid things like weight-lifting because they’re afraid they will get “too muscly-looking”. It’s definitely associated with looking “unfeminine,” and it’s sort of a chicken-and-egg situation: physical strength is considered masculine, women are considered “weak,” if you know what I mean..

        • Absolutely! By any chance are you familiar with the book The Frailty Myth by Colette Dowling? I find it so useful on this topic. And I love the title. The concept that women are frail by nature IS but a myth, and I am so glad she wrote an entire book calling that mistruth out.

          • I’m not, but I will definitely check it out – thanks for the recommendation!

  10. Another point to cringe over; in the movie Merida hated the fancy dress her mom squeezed her into and she deliberately tore out of it! So if we must give the characters a voice off-screen can’t they at least make the voice match the character? Movie Merida would NOT have wanted to dress up for the occasion. What an insulting reply.

    • Absolutely! Merida would have been happy dressing comfortably, thankyouverymuch. And as someone else pointed out in this blog’s comments, exposed shoulders in the sun would be brutal for Celtic skin!

  11. I think its wrong for women to be saying making her pretty is weakening her. Girls who like to be pretty and glammed up are not below other women. Shes NOT above the other princesses! In fact i feel there’s a handful of better princess role models cause Merida didnt even really fight for much she mostly complained and cried! She is a great character to some extent but shes NOT above the other princesses. Jasmine or Tiana or Belle, Mulan none of them sat around and waited for romance and were braver than merida ever was! Yes, they found love but thats not a bad thing! If people feel this way, Merida should be dropped from the princess line up all together. She wasnt a given to be added since she doesnt sing, doesnt have a prince, and is PIXAR. People should be glad she was added but now you messed it up

    • The thing is, it’s not just about how she’s dressed. It’s that they changed her posture and even the shape of her face. It’s not a slight alteration–it’s a pretty radical transformation. All those little details that have changed about Merida add up to something much greater than the sum of their parts.

      Also, no one’s suggesting (at least not to my knowledge) a princess hierarchy. It’s just a fact that Merida is the ONLY Disney Princess created BY a woman SPECIFICALLY as a role model for little girls.

      As to the idea that “people should be glad she was added but now you messed it up”… I think you’re ascribing a lot more power to me than I have. :) I certainly haven’t messed up any of Disney’s plans. (Would that they would actually listen to me…!)

      • That’s an excellent point about Merida being unique among Disney princesses because she was deliberately created as a role model.
        Besides which, from an in-character point of view, Merida is a “princess” by birth. Why would she need to sing prettily in order to earn the title?
        Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the concept of royalty as it is depicted in “Brave” knows that it relies on heredity, not personal merit. Someone – another clan leader, for example – might challenge Merida or her father and attempt to depose him, but he would do so by war, not with a singing contest.
        Suggesting that Merida doesn’t deserve to be considered a princess because she doesn’t have a prince is just all kinds of messed up.

        • “Suggesting that Merida doesn’t deserve to be considered a princess because she doesn’t have a prince is just all kinds of messed up.”

          Yes–and it also illustrates how strongly the romance narrative is intertwined with the princess story genre. No romance/no prince = not a “princess” story. So sad that this is the main type of story that our popular culture producers want to dish up to little girls!

          (Have you seen the new My Little Pony series? I think it’s a good example of how producers keep redirecting stories for girls towards romance.)

          • Absolutely, because of course our entire purpose in life is to “catch” a man and get married :(
            I haven’t seen the new MLP but the last I heard about it was that it was refreshingly different from other media aimed at little girls – was I misinformed or have the “executives” been fiddling with it?

            • It’s terrific, but the execs have indeed been fiddling with it, introducing princesses and weddings and that sort of thing. Sigh!

  12. Pingback: Disney macht Merida erst „sexy“ und dann einen (halben) Rückzieher

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