Princess power

05.17.13

Creator of Brave’s Merida Talks Disney Backlash

Merida was supposed to be cut from a different mold than other princesses—until Disney sexed her up. Her creator, Brenda Chapman, talks to Caroline Linton about the online outrage against the Magic Kingdom’s makeover.

Merida, the heroine of Pixar’s Brave, isn’t your typical Disney princess (no offense, Sleeping Beauty). She has frizzy hair; she beats off potential suitors with her archery skills; and (spoiler alert) she rides off on a horse without a prince in the end. So fans were baffled this week when Disney decided to give her a sexy makeover after adding her to their line of princess dolls. The new Merida had a slimmer waistline, beachy waves instead of untamed curls, and worst of all, no trademark bow and arrow. The new look caused such an uproar that it led to a Change.org petition with thousands of signatures to restore Merida’s original look—and Disney listened, sheepishly pulling the new Merida from its website. The heroine’s creator, Brenda Chapman, talks to Caroline Linton about what happened to the character modeled after her own daughter—and why it sends a bad message to girls. 

The Daily Beast: Thank you so much for calling.

Brenda Chapman: Thank you so much for the interest. It’s taken me a little by surprise, I have to be honest. This whole thing. [Laughs] I wasn’t expecting it.

How do you feel now that the Disney site has reverted to Merida’s original look?

You know, I’m encourage by seeing that, but I also know that it’s still out there all over the rest of the world, so I don’t know if they just did that to just appease us all and try to quiet us down. But they didn’t do that across the board, so I’m still disappointed. I’m appreciative that they took it off, but I just want to hear from them. I’d like to get a statement from there somewhere, that they are definitely changing it back to the original Merida. A drawing is fine—just draw Merida, don’t draw this older, sexed-up character.

 

How did you feel when you first saw it?

I was kind of shocked, I couldn’t believe it. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised, I was just incredibly disappointed. Disney is Disney, and I’ve been rather disillusioned with a lot of their choices over the years. It’s hard because when I was working on the film, we were all aware once Disney bought Pixar, this was a big possibility, so we had designed her dress-up dress that Merida would like, as opposed to the one her mom picked and she hated. And it’s just weird to see a sort of a weird version of that dress, even her mother wouldn’t have put it on her because it’s off-the-shoulder, and it’s just odd. I don’t take it personally because I know they’re not doing personally, they’re doing it, I think, for a business reason, but that reason is very misguided…I think they need to look at other marketing methods in respect to the message they send little girls. I think they do have a responsibility, and they’re shirking it by creating this kind of image.

 

For sure. It’s along those lines of ‘Disney Ate My Daughter’, and the Disney-ification of girls. It’s such a great movie because it gives such a strong female role model.

Thank you, that was my whole goal behind it—was just to give us another option, much more empowering and palatable to an audience.

I remember the day it came out, a lot of my friends have young children, and my Facebook news feed was just full of people saying how excited they were to see it with their daughters.

I remember when I very first announced it years ago, and it was going to be a princess—I remember getting so much flak about that, and I was like “Wait, just wait, I’m trying to turn that all upside down.” So I’m glad people got what I was trying to do, in the end.

You didn’t take it personally, but when the company said that Merida exemplifies what it means to be a Disney princess, did you find that to be disingenuous?

Absolutely, it’s lip service. They say that, but then they do this visual [change]. They talk about the strengths and the blah-de-da-de, but yet they put her right in that box of eye candy for males. And it was really, I was a little more angry and frustrated about it than anything. They knew Merida was supposed to break that mold, but they just sort of ignored that.

 

There’s nothing about being who you are, utilizing your own strengths to be something special.

 

Are you proud of all the support you’ve heard in terms of changing Merida back to how she’s supposed to look?

Yes, I’m incredibly overwhelmed by the response that Mighty Girls petition got. That’s how I found about it, I was in Santiago, at a South American festival, and I started getting these emails in this sporadic Internet [service] that I was getting. It was like “What’s going on, oh my God,” so I signed that petition and then things went a little crazy. I’m just really pleased—I’ve read some of them, the naysayers, that were like “What’s the big deal, it’s just a cartoon, get over yourselves” and I just have to laugh, you know a little bit—well, it’s just not something you care about, but it’s something I care about and I’m continuing to fight for it.

Do you think it will inspire a different look?

I hope so. I have been so disillusioned over the years by Disney’s approach to the female image that I have my doubts, but at the same time, I hope so. This is the first time I felt, “Wow, there are more than just a handful of us, stating our mind about this,” and whether they can help but listen, I don’t know. The optimistic part of me hopes so.

 

Along those lines, what do you think it means to be a Disney princess?

I think it means being pretty, being sweet, having long flowing hair, and waiting for your prince—and I think that’s the overall message. There’s nothing about being who you are, utilizing your own strengths to be something special. I just want to say, one thing I noticed on the Disney site, they had a video of a young girl who is an archer. I really love that they’re going there with that, but it’s so hidden there with this outward look—it’s so tainted, it’s almost like they’re contradicting themselves. That’s when I get a little hope—I think that’s really cool. Some cool woman thought to put that on there, but it’s hidden underneath all this stuff. She talks about the struggle about how it’s all boys, but in the end, she says, “I really am a princess”—that’s cool, that’s the kind of princess I wanted Merida to be, the kind of princess that wouldn’t want mothers to gag. They aren’t taking that message home with the imagery they put out.

 

Yes, that’s so true.

One thing I would really like to dispel—because I’ve got a lot of, “Being a girly-girl is bad,” and no—if that’s how you are, and if you’re doing it for the right reasons and you’re doing it because you enjoy it, great. I just don’t think everyone should be put in that box because we’re not all in that box.

 

I completely understand. This is an issue that’s very near to my heart, even though actually I was kind of a girly-girl myself.

Girly girls are fine—my daughter is sort of going through that phase right now, where she is getting dressed up and doing the makeup and I don’t want to discourage her from that. As long as you dress appropriately, it’s fine if that’s who you want to be. It’s just being allowed to be who you are without someone telling you that you’re supposed to be something you’re not and that’s what bothers me about this image of a so-called princess.