Earlier this month, Disney debuted a new look for the heroine Merida from the movie Brave to mark her introduction into their “princess” line of products. Known for her pluck and self-sufficiency (she doesn’t need a stinking prince to save her), the original animation of Merida was slimmed down, glammed up, and her trademark bow and arrow were removed in favor of a sassy, low slung belt.
Fans of the more scrappy, less skinny Merida were incensed: So far 168,881 people have signed a Change.org petition asking Disney CEO Robert Iger to ditch the new version. “By making her skinnier, sexier, and more mature in appearance, you are sending a message to girls that the original, realistic, teenage-appearing version of Merida is inferior, that for girls and women to have value—to be recognized as true princesses—they must conform to a narrow definition of beauty,” the petition reads.
Fans are not the only ones who are incensed at the maturation of Merida. The director of Brave, Brenda Chapman, wrote to the Marin Independent Journal, calling the makeover "a blatantly sexist marketing move based on money." This is not the first time that a company has taken a beloved doll and forced her into a more grown-up package. Strawberry Shortcake was put on a diet and given a new do and a cell phone back in 2008. Rainbow Brite and her crew were similarly redone. Even those ugly-cute troll dolls from our youth are not immune to being tarted up.
There has also been push back before. The cultural critic Peggy Orenstein has written a book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, about how negative princess culture is for the body image and self-esteem of young girls. Orenstein registered her unhappiness over Merida’s new look on her blog, where she takes aim at the way all the Disney princesses have been botoxed and lobotomized. “I’ve always said that it’s not about the movies. It’s about the bait-and-switch that happens in the merchandise, and the way the characters have evolved and proliferated offscreen,” Orenstein writes.
When Dora the Explorer got a tween makeover, there were protests and petitions similar to the Merida outcry. Her cute short do was grown out, her stout frame was elongated. People protested, but the impact was much smaller then: Only about 10,000 people signed a petition to make the new Dora more in the spirit of the original Dora, with her compass and sneakers included to show the desire to explore. Mattel was unmoved—the new Dora remained as designed, though she was unveiled six months early.
Perhaps, with the virality of the Merida protest, this time angry parents and kids will eventually make more of an impact. The official statement sent by a Disney spokesperson is vague: "Merida exemplifies what it means to be a Disney Princess through being brave, passionate, and confident, and she remains the same strong and determined Merida from the movie whose inner qualities have inspired moms and daughters around the world.” With their defense of her inner qualities, unfortunately it doesn’t sound like they’ll be making any more changes to her exterior. Still it’s heartening to know that parents are standing up and starting to object to the way toys are marketed to their little girls.
Update: Disney has pulled the new Merida from its Princesses site, though it’s not clear if the revamped version will live on in merchandise, etc.